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Utah recorded 1,198 new coronavirus cases Thursday — a new daily record, according to data from the Utah Department of Health. The previous high, of 1,117, was set last Friday.
And this alarming increase in infections is now being felt by Utah’s hospitals.
Gov. Gary Herbert said in his monthly news conference that he was concerned about a corresponding spike in hospitalizations and the effect that’s having on the state’s front-line workers.
“People are tired and exhausted, and it wears on them,” he said at his televised news conference with PBS Utah.
The state reported that 188 patients are now hospitalized with the virus, up from 171 the day before. And at the start of the week, that number was 131.
Utah’s intensive care units were 67% occupied as of Thursday, meeting the state’s goal of less than 85% occupancy. But the number of people in ICUs with the coronavirus is also rising. Last Friday, ICUs were caring for 49 COVID-19 patients, while on Thursday, that number had jumped up to 76.
Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 444 on Thursday, same as Wednesday.
For the past seven days, Utah has averaged 916 new positive test results per day — another record.
The statewide spike in cases has been focused largely in Utah County, and Herbert announced earlier this week that he was requiring the county’s two largest cities, Provo and Orem, to go back to an "orange,” or moderate, level of restrictions. On Thursday, he said there’s a possibility that he could move the entire county back from the current “yellow,” or low, level if things don’t improve.
“That is the threat, I guess, that is out there,” he said. “We’re trying to do this incrementally. We don’t want to overreact. We don’t want to underreact. We’re trying to find that right balance point.”
A countywide spread
Utah County tallied another 568 cases Thursday — 47% of the state’s Thursday total, even though Utah County has about 20% of the state’s population. That is the highest total reported by a Utah health district during the pandemic.
The new cases brought Utah County’s weeklong average to 401 cases per day, or 63 new daily cases per 100,000 people — more than double the statewide average of 29.
County data shows that this isn’t just an outbreak in Provo and Orem.
As of Thursday, Provo was averaging 109 new cases daily per 100,000 residents — lower than Vineyard’s rate of 118. And with a rate of 75 cases per 100,000 people, Orem recorded a lower prevalence of the virus than did Lindon.
Meanwhile, Herbert has said that Provo and Orem must drop to fewer than 35 daily cases per 100,000 residents to lower their restrictions — a threshold that Pleasant Grove, Springville, Cedar Hills, Lehi, Alpine, American Fork, Saratoga Springs, Highland, Mapleton and Eagle Mountain also surpassed as of Thursday.
Brigham Young University, which has experienced the worst campus outbreak since fall term began, reported 1,104 cases as of Tuesday, up from 1,014 cases as of Monday.
Herbert praised university presidents for sending a “strongly worded letter” asking students to modify their behaviors, as Utah Valley University and BYU have become part of the epicenter of the outbreak in Utah County.
But he criticized students who have “pushed back on their leadership, I think inappropriately, by the way.”
That’s likely a reference to the back-to-school dance parties students have thrown in the area in recent weeks.
Herbert noted Utah County has among the lowest percentages of people who are wearing masks in the state, and said he hoped that the recent mask mandate implemented by the Utah County Health Department and county commissioners would “help us slow down the spread and hopefully turn the numbers back in the right direction."
No statewide mask mandate
While the governor warned of stronger restrictions in Utah County, he continued to dismiss the idea of taking stronger action statewide through a mask mandate, arguing that such a measure “doesn’t make a lot of sense” in rural areas.
“We’ve been consistent on saying if there’s a need for those kind of strict measures, we look to the local government people who know what’s best, know the demographics, know the culture, know the situation as well as anybody if not better than anybody to make those kinds of decisions," he said.
During a debate Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who’s running for governor, said he had “no choice” but to stand by Herbert’s decision not to impose a statewide mask order as the lieutenant governor. Cox did say, however, that there is some merit in avoiding a blanket approach to face coverings.
Herbert said at his news conference Thursday that his second in command was “certainly free to differ from me” on that issue.
“But what he is doing is following, as I am, the science that comes from our Unified Command,” the governor said. “The recommendations come [from] there based on data, based on science, based on the best medical advice we have.”
Although the state had not updated components of its coronavirus “response scoreboard” for days or even weeks, it appears that some of the health measures have strayed further from the goals set in Herbert’s latest “accountability” plan. The goals include keeping weeklong averages to fewer than 400 new cases per day — a target Utah met in mid-August but surpassed again Sept. 3 as cases among young adults exploded.
The state’s key metric under Herbert’s plan — a coronavirus death rate of less than 1% — stayed at 0.7% on Thursday, possibly kept down by the large numbers of new cases among young and lower-risk patients.
Since late August, the rate of new cases among patients ages 15 to 24 has more than tripled, from 98 new cases per day to 345 new cases per day as of Thursday. During the first week of September, the age group overtook 25- to 44-year-olds as Utah’s biggest contributor of new cases, despite comprising a far smaller portion of the state’s population.
As the state continues to see a surge in cases, Herbert encouraged Utahns to take precautions to stem the spread of the virus and noted that everyone will have to make sacrifices until a vaccine is developed.
Asked about recent polls that show some Americans are wary of a vaccine, worrying it could be rushed through without proper vetting, he said that not everyone gets vaccinated for the flu, “but it’s available for them and that’s helped them to slow it down.”
“It’s a matter of education,” he said. “There’s fear out there, but there may come a time when people fear the coronavirus more than they’ll fear getting a shot.”
Herbert, noting that he’s in a more vulnerable age group for serious effects from the coronavirus, noted that he plans to get the vaccine once it’s distributed.
Demand for tests rises
Meanwhile, testing demand and the percent of tests with positive results remained high Thursday.
The rate of tests with positive results was at 14.2% on Thursday, tying Wednesday’s record high. The goal is to get that down to 3%.
The state recorded 15 new school outbreaks and 80 new school-related cases on Thursday.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 727 patients infected in 104 school outbreaks, with a median age of 16. Thirteen of those patients have been hospitalized; none has died.
Salt Lake County reported 73 new school-related cases Thursday. The Jordan School District, which so far has ignored state advice to close schools with more than 15 active cases, reported the most new infections, adding 28 to Wednesday’s total of 194 cases in the district.
Riverton and Copper Hills High schools have remained open despite identifying at least 17 active cases as of Wednesday — though Copper Hills High announced Thursday that football games would be canceled for two weeks because three or more players had tested positive. School officials said 300 to 350 students had been instructed to quarantine since classes began on Aug. 24.
The Canyons School District has had 264 cases since the pandemic began — the most of any district in Salt Lake County. The district initially kept Corner Canyon High School open on a hybrid schedule of online and in-person classes, despite more than 15 active cases in an outbreak that began earlier this month. But last week, after a popular teacher was hospitalized for COVID-19, the district moved Corner Canyon and two other high schools to online-only classes.
The Granite School District, which has reported 156 cases, this week closed two high schools that exceeded 15 active cases.
In Utah County, the Alpine School District has moved five of its high schools to a hybrid schedule as they have approached — but have not surpassed — 15 active cases.