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As Utah breaks another daily COVID-19 record, officials send an alert to cellphones statewide

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A line of cars bends around the University Of Utah Hospital's parking lot as people wait for COVID-19 testing in Farmington, Oct. 23, 2020.

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As Utah set another daily record with 2,292 new COVID-19 cases and state officials sent a cellphone alert to residents about the rapid spread, an infectious disease expert bluntly warned: “We are failing to control the epidemic.”

“The numbers don’t lie,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, a physician with Intermountain Healthcare. “Not only are our cases going up, but our test positivity rate also is going up ... indicating there’s widespread community transmission.”

With hospitalizations and deaths also rising, Stenehjem said, “this is irrefutable evidence that this isn’t just an increase in testing. This is widespread community spread, resulting in pain, suffering and death.”

The state passed another grim milestone Friday, with three new deaths from COVID-19 reported — bringing the overall death toll to 601.

Health departments in six Utah counties set single-day records: Salt Lake (901), Utah (613), Davis (183), Tooele (56), Summit (31) and Wasatch (27). So did the TriCounty Health District, which covers Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties; it had 32 new cases Friday.

The escalating case count prompted Utah officials to send an emergency alert to smartphones statewide, with this dire message:

“COVID-19 is spreading rapidly. Record cases. Almost every county is a high transmission area. Hospitals are nearly overwhelmed. By public health order, masks are required in high transmission areas. Social gatherings are limited to 10 or fewer.”

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) The state of Utah sent this emergency alert to millions of Utah cellphones on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, reminding them of the rising incidence of COVID-19. State officials estimate nearly 70% of the 3 million phones in Utah received the alert.

The alert directed people to the state’s coronavirus website, which has county-specific information. The site crashed briefly when the alert went out, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Dougherty said the alert should have been received by up to 70% of the state’s approximately 3 million cellphones. Everyone else, he said, should hear about it from their friends or through the media.

In a similar warning, the University of Utah texted its students Friday: “Urgent action is needed this weekend to slow spread of coronavirus in Utah.” The university said it was sending via campus e-mail a list of actions students can take.

The three people whose deaths were reported by the Utah Department of Health were: a Salt Lake County man, between 25 and 44 years old; a Tooele County man, between 44 and 65; and a Davis County woman, between 65 and 84.

In a statement Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert noted that while Utah’s mortality rate from COVID-19 was below the national rate, “we must not become numb to what these numbers mean for our communities — for those infected, for everyone who loves them.”

Hospitalization rates and fatalities are lagging indicators, and Herbert noted that Friday’s 2,292 new cases could translate, based on current rates, to 115 hospitalizations and 11 deaths in the next week or two.

“This will cause increasing strain on our already overworked medical professionals, and leave even more families with an empty chair at their dinner table,” Herbert said, “and that is to say nothing of the long-term effects many more of these Utahns will face, even as they recover.”

Though Herbert said “we cannot be too cautious in our efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19,” he did not propose on Friday any policy changes to control the virus.

The bulk of the new cases were in younger demographic groups, though nearly every age group except infants and those over age 85 set a one-day record. The biggest number of new cases were in the age 25-44 group, with 800. Young people, between 15 and 24, had 619 new cases.

There were 192 cases among children, 1-14. People between 45 and 64 had 497 cases reported Friday, and people in the 65-84 group reported 163 new cases.

Hospitalizations rose on Friday, with 318 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported — tying the single-day record. Utah’s intensive care units were 72.5% occupied, a figure that reflects statewide capacity and does not account for different needs from city to city, or for certain medical specialties.

There were 10,346 new test results reported on Friday. For the past week, 18.2% 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.

Public health officials are concerned about clubs and other venues throwing their doors open for Halloween weekend parties, providing more chances for superspreader events, particularly among young people.

Social gatherings, such as family dinners or parties, are limited to 10 people in high transmission areas. But businesses and others can convene large events, if they comply with current guidelines to reduce transmission risks.

Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said his agency has the power to shut down events that pose a threat to public health. Attendees must wear masks and organizers must ensure that people who arrive in different groups stay 6 feet apart.

When the department hears of a large event, he said, officials try to contact the venue or organizers to make sure they know the rules. County staff also make unannounced weekend visits to make sure organizers are in compliance.

Two nightclubs in downtown Salt Lake City were closed briefly in September under an “order of restriction” related to COVID-19, Rupp said — while the department sent written warnings to four more clubs the weekend of Oct. 17.

Overnight, someone apparently shot out the glass doors of the UDOH offices in Millcreek with a pellet gun, a department spokesman said Friday. No one was injured and the damage appeared minor.

The incident happened hours after about a dozen people mounted protests Thursday morning and again in the evening outside the home of Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist. Her address was posted on Facebook in a comment to a post by an anti-mask activist, and the post was later deleted.

Another 30 people showed up to protest at the house of Dr. Joseph Miner, UDOH’s executive director, the UDOH spokesman said. Miner has been out of action for much of the pandemic, due to his own health problems; Jefferson Burton was appointed interim executive director in March, and Rich Saunders has been serving in that interim position since August.

Tribune reporter Sara Tabin contributed to this article.

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