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With 716 new coronavirus cases reported in Utah on Tuesday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall wants Gov. Gary Herbert to allow the city to return to “orange,” or moderate, restriction levels.
“Our data’s continuing upward trend is alarming and swift action is necessary. The shift to orange should be a signal to Salt Lake City residents of the gravity of this situation,” Mendenhall said in a statement. “With this request, I hope to specifically target the behaviors that are leading to increased infections, like large gatherings, and will work with state and county leaders and other stakeholders to tailor restrictions to those activities."
The statement said she may request “to modify” some of the orange guidelines, but she said in an interview that she’s still working out those details with county and state partners.
“The color-code restriction levels were created in early spring, but public health officials and businesses have since evolved practices” in ways that address public health concerns without being as restrictive, she said.
Although Utah County still has the highest rate of new cases — an average of 52 new daily cases per 100,000 residents in the past week — that figure has declined steadily during the past week. Now Salt Lake County’s rate of new infections is rising rapidly, jumping from about 12 to 38 new daily cases on average since early September.
During a public meeting Tuesday, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Mendenhall was discussing sports events with the state. “She wouldn’t want sports to cease,” Wilson said, but she added that there could limitations on spectators.
“There probably is some spread,” among sports spectators, Wilson added. “We don’t see as high compliance at high school football games with the [countywide] mask mandate as you see with the general population.”
Although some people who refuse to wear masks tend to get attention by acting disruptive or threatening in public, Wilson said much of the current spread is coming from “personal choice, personal interaction.”
“I don’t know that I have yet come to the conclusion that a color change is going to get us to where we need to be," Wilson said.
For the past week, the Utah Department of Health has tallied 1,035 new positive test results a day, on average — a record high.
Draper on Tuesday posted the state’s highest weekly number of new cases per capita for the second day in a row. An outbreak at the Utah State Prison may be contributing to those numbers — but even excluding the 194 cases reported at the prison since September 23, Draper’s infection rate during that time remains the highest in Salt Lake County, with Herriman close behind.
Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 488 on Tuesday, with six fatalities reported since Monday:
Four Salt Lake County men, ages 65 to 84.
A Salt Lake County man older than 85.
A Davis County man age 65 to 84.
Hospitalizations were up significantly on Tuesday, with 208 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. That’s approaching peak hospitalization rates that occurred in mid-July, when Utah was averaging 211 COVID-19 patients receiving hospital care each day. On average, 190 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week.
Utah’s intensive care units were 67% occupied as of Tuesday, meeting the state’s goal of less than 85% occupancy.
In total, 4,058 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 39 from Tuesday. During the past two weeks, the state has reported 508 hospitalizations — the highest number of any 14-day stretch since the pandemic began.
For the past week, 13.8% of all tests have come back positive — a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said. Statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.
There were 9,421 new test results reported on Tuesday, above the weeklong average of 7,677 new tests per day.
Salt Lake County is seeing a second wave of infections much bigger than the first one this summer, which caused County Council members to express alarm at their public meeting Tuesday. The county has a 14.25% positive testing rate, compared to 9.74% in early August.
“You are more at risk today in this county than you were when the anxiety with this [pandemic] started,” said at-large member Shireen Ghorbani. “I think it’s time that we do something, again, to help draw attention to how really dangerous this moment is.”
Public health officials said data shows residents are much more like to get infections by socializing in small groups with people they know rather than at restaurants or gyms full of strangers.
“As we continue to socialize, if we don’t take appropriate mitigation efforts, we won’t be able to get a handle on this,” said Gary Edwards, executive director of Salt Lake County Health Department.
Edwards said he was particularly worried about the coming winter season, as people spend more time indoors and attending gatherings for the holidays.
“We should be social distancing. It doesn’t mean we can’t be together with a limited amount of extended family, but we have to continue to take precautions,” Edwards said. “Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening.”
While the county’s surge in cases started with school children and college-aged adults, public health workers are now seeing the sickness spread to those in their 30s and 40s as students spread the virus to their parents.
“Outside school, they don’t have anyone overseeing their behaviors,” Edwards said, adding, “As we get in more social settings, outdoor settings ... our guard drops and that’s where the problem is happening, whether it’s with youth or the adults. And we need our adults to step up and be the example.”
A newly released survey by the nonprofit Utah Foundation shows that back in early July, the state’s residents were split along political lines about mask wearing and how Utah was then handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
For example, 56% of Utahns thought the state had reopened the economy too quickly after the pandemic started, while 44% thought the reopening was too cautious. More than 9 out of 10 liberals said the reopening was too fast, while most conservatives thought it was too slow.