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Utah reported 911 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday — the single highest daily count here since the pandemic began.
Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, cautioned that the record is beginning to put the state on par with the worst spread in the country previously seen in New York City and on the Navajo Nation. “We need to take immediate action to prevent unnecessary illnesses and death,” she stressed during the weekly media briefing from the Utah Capitol.
Thursday’s tally continued an ongoing spike from this week, raising Utah’s rolling seven-day average for new cases — the metric public health officials use to gauge trends — to 661 cases per day, the highest since July 22. The average for the seven days before that was 381 per day.
Dunn said she was shocked that much of a climb could happen in just seven days.
Gov. Gary Herbert said statewide mask mandate and increased restrictions “are on the table. They have never left the table.”
“This is not a good news day," he added. "But it’s not one where we say the sky is falling, either.”
Another 5,447 tests for the virus were processed in the past 24 hours, the Utah Department of Health reported. The rolling seven-day rate of positive test results is at 11.9% — the third straight day that the rate set a new record.
Herbert attributed the increase largely to schools reopening — which he had previously encouraged them to do — calling out Brigham Young University in Provo by name. Students there, he said, have been openly defying policies and recommendations to wear masks and holding dance parties off campus that he believes have spread the virus.
The school has the highest case count for any college in the state, with 690 total cases as of Thursday among 62,000 people on campus. That’s up from 560 reported just two days earlier.
Meanwhile, the 15- to 24-year-old age group continues to see the most infections. On Thursday, the demographic saw a record high 385 cases — making up more than 40% of the daily cases.
Herbert called the spiking numbers a “red flag warning,” and urged Utahns, especially younger residents, to follow public health advice about social distancing, wearing masks and other measures to prevent the spread of the virus. They are “mostly all commonsense things,” he said. "But we have people who are ignoring them, almost defiantly.”
He scolded: “I’m concerned by the lack of concern that some Utahns have for the welfare of others.”
On Thursday, there were no new deaths reported, with the total for the state remaining at 437. While that may appear to be a silver lining for now, both Dunn and Herbert said they expect the rate to go up again, with the younger population getting sick and then spreading it to their older parents and grandparents.
“This younger population is acting like the canary in the coal mine," he noted.
In response, the governor announced that the state will work to open COVID-19 testing to everyone who wants to get tested — regardless of whether they have symptoms. “We need to have better testing, more testing," he said, adding that the state’s contact tracing efforts will also be accelerated.
Additionally, Herbert said that although some counties have requested dropping from the low-restriction “yellow” category to less-restrictive “green” level, those requests will be put on hold for now to see if the counts continue to increase across the state.
Beyond that, though, he did not specify any other actions the state would take next, saying his team will meet through the weekend to consider any more far-reaching options.
He added that no one metric will determine whether he will approve a larger mask mandate beyond the existing requirement in K-12 schools. But, mostly, he said he’d like to see voluntary compliance.
Otherwise, he said, action will be left to local jurisdictions. And he pointed to Utah County’s mayors and commissioners, in particular, to step up with the rising cases concentrated there — though he offered no specifics on what he’d like them to do.
About 40% of the new cases in the past week came from Utah County, which has 20% of the state’s population. And, in some places, Dunn noted, the infection rate is six times higher than the state average.
Bill Lee, a commissioner there, responded Thursday only to say that he has “had not had contact from the governor on this issue.” Lee previously led the charge for a controversial measure to exempt Utah County students from having to wear masks in school.
At the time, he said, “I don’t like government mandates" and led a rally of hundreds of maskless parents in protest.
Commissioner Tanner Ainge, though, said he’s spoken with the governor and “accepts his challenge.” He said that mayors and commissioners in the county are planning to meet Friday to discuss possible further restrictions — particularly on large groups, like the dance parties.
“I think this is very serious," he added. “Personally, I’m willing to support enhanced restrictions on the gatherings that are obviously contributing to this spike.”
The third commissioner, Nathan Ivie, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. Meanwhile, Provo’s city council has issued its own mask mandate — despite a veto from the mayor there.
But even with calling schools out for contributing to the spread, the governor also declined to take further action to require they shut down when there are outbreaks — saying that, too, should be left to local control.
Currently, the state health department has advised — but not mandated — that a school close and move online for two weeks when there are more than 15 active cases. Two schools in Salt Lake County have already decided not to follow that recommendation. Those are Riverton High in Jordan School District and Corner Canyon High in Canyons School District.
Herbert insisted Thursday that “all schools are not the same” and they should have flexibility to decide what’s best.
Since public schools began opening Aug. 13, there have been 52 outbreaks, affecting 326 patients. Four new outbreaks and 33 new cases were reported in the past day.
And that follows a peak Wednesday with 48 new cases in schools.
Those impacted by the outbreaks in classrooms have an overall median age of 16. Two more have been hospitalized as of Thursday for a total of 11; none has died.
For K-12, Canyons School District has the highest total cases in Salt Lake County. As of Wednesday, it was at 157. That’s a big jump, up from 101 the day before.
Jordan School District has the next highest at 108. And Granite School District has 96. Most cases are in the high schools.
Overall, the rising positive rate of tests “is real, and that’s just showing the community transmission is rising,” especially because of schools reopening, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said in the hospital chain’s weekly Facebook Live briefing.
Stenehjem said with the spike in COVID-19 cases mostly hitting people between age 15 and 24, he believes it’s due to extracurricular and social activities connected to school — which was the case for nine of the 17 cases at Riverton High, for instance. There have certainly been fewer cases, for instance, among elementary-age kids.
Draper Mayor Troy Walker warned of a spike in COVID-19 cases in his city, the majority of them also among teens. He said in an email to residents that Draper had a rolling seven-day average of 129 cases per day — nearly four times the average of 34 cases on Sept. 1.
He recorded a one-minute video message with Eric Kjar, football coach at Corner Canyon High School, urging students to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing.
“You know what you gotta do — you gotta wear the mask," Walker said in the video. “You gotta wear it more, you gotta wear it better, you gotta wear it in groups.”
Stenehjem similarly urged all Utahns to continue wearing masks, washing hands regularly and staying at least 6 feet away from other people where possible. He implored people, too, to get their flu shots.
With an expected rise in hospitalizations from COVID-19, Stenehjem said, “we cannot have our hospitals full of people with severe influenza.”
Even if the state were to set up emergency beds for patients, Stenehjem said, Utah’s medical community doesn’t have enough doctors and other specialists to handle an onslaught of patients.
“Beds don’t take care of people,” Stenehjem said. “People take care of people.”
As of Thursday, there were 120 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, including 20 admitted since the previous day. Since the pandemic began, 3,401 Utahns have been hospitalized with the coronavirus.