Utah coronavirus cases, hospitalizations shatter records, with 2,807 new infections Thursday

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pedestrians wear masks in downtown Salt Lake City, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020.

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Utah reported 2,807 new coronavirus cases Thursday, obliterating the previous record increase of about 2,300.

For the past week, the state has averaged 1,943 new positive test results a day, continuing a streak of new record highs, the Utah Department of Health reported.

And those catastrophic increases mostly aren’t reflected in the new hospitalizations, which typically occur seven to 10 days after infection and also reached record highs Thursday.

Meanwhile, Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 632 on Thursday, with seven fatalities reported since Wednesday and one previous death removed from the list after further investigation. The new deaths are:

  • A Davis County woman, age 65 to 84.

  • Two Salt Lake County men older than 85.

  • A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85.

  • A Tooele County man, age 65 to 84.

  • Two Utah County men, ages 65 to 84.

Hospitalizations continued to rise Thursday, with a record 389 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. More than 500 Utahns have been hospitalized for COVID-19 in the past week.

“It’s grim news," Gov. Gary Herbert said at a Thursday news conference, “and it’s discouraging.”

He also said the numbers weren’t surprising, and that his experts predict that “we’re going to see higher numbers in the coming days and weeks. … We’ve been warned by our medical professionals, our data scientists [that] this is going to overrun our medical facilities.”

Intensive care units were 78.4% full Thursday, but hospital administrators have said that figure doesn’t account for recent staffing shortages or demand for certain specialists and equipment. More than 1 in 4 of Utah’s ICU patients are there for COVID-19, state health officials reported Thursday.

And while San Juan County reported the most hospitalizations per capita, several other health departments reported record high hospitalizations for the past week. Two of those were Salt Lake County and the Southwest Utah Health District, where hospitals already have filled their ICUs.

Herbert said it’s “frustrating” to see case counts have risen “when we know we can moderate and bend the curve if we cooperate.”

He continued to urge Utahns to socially distance, practice regular hand-washing and wear a mask. “The protocol stays the same: If you’re sick, don’t go to work,” he said.

He added: “This is not a hoax. This is a serious ailment, a serious virus that causes a serious disease.”

Herbert said Utahns must consider not just the deaths caused by COVID-19 — which, he pointed out, are at a lower rate than other states — but also the long-term impacts the virus has on patients, from loss of taste and smell to lingering heart and lung damage.

Citing his meetings over the weekend with federal health officials, he expressed optimism that “we’re going to have a vaccine in the next one to two months.”

For now, “I believe that testing will be a key to learn who has the virus” and then help control the spread, Herbert said. Though it’s impossible to test every Utahn, he said, “we need to lengthen our stride when it comes to testing.”

He did not announce any specific measures, but said: “We’re looking at all options to see what we can do to modify people’s behavior. It boils down to how we act as individuals."

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said the Halloween parties thrown in parts of the state — which Herbert called “a reckless activity” — will likely show an increase in COVID-19 cases in the next week.

“We just can’t have these mass gatherings any more,” Dunn said.

At least one massive party this weekend was in Utah County, which on Thursday posted its highest-ever single-day increase and two-week case total, overwhelming any progress made since the county’s previous peak in late September. Cases in Utah County began to climb rapidly as students returned to schools and colleges, with infections spreading widely among young adults as parties proliferated in opposition to public health advice.

Cases declined there after Utah County officials implemented a mask requirement, but the sheriff refused to enforce it — and residents have emphatically protested mask-wearing, with one vendor reporting he was thrown out of a Lehi farmers market just for distributing masks and requiring them at his booth.

Now Lehi, Eagle Mountain, Saratoga Springs, American Fork, northern and western Orem, western Provo, Spanish Fork, Springville, Mapleton, Payson and the rural parts of southern Utah County again are reporting record-high case spikes.

Although Utah County has more new cases per capita than any other county in the state, Salt Lake County posted the largest case increase Thursday, with a record 1,164 new cases in a single day. For the past two weeks, Salt Lake City’s Glendale, Rose Park and Downtown neighborhoods, as well as Kearns and Draper, posted the highest case rates per capita.

Record case increases also were reported in Box Elder, Sanpete, Davis, Carbon, Washington, Iron, Beaver, Tooele and Weber counties.

For the past week, 19.5% of all tests have come back positive — a record-high rate that suggests a large number of infected people are not being tested and may unwittingly be spreading the virus to others, state officials have said. The high percentage of tests with positive results comes even as testing occurs at record levels, with 13,620 new test results reported Thursday.

The highest positivity rates were in Emery, Wasatch and Utah counties.

Most counties did not change restriction levels this week, with 22 of Utah’s 29 counties remaining in the “high” transmission category under the state’s guidelines. Those counties are under a mask order and must limit gatherings to 10 people.

Only Millard County changed categories, dropping from “high” to join Iron County at the “moderate” transmission level. Gatherings there are limited to 25 people but may exceed that if masks are worn.

Daggett, Kane, Piute, Rich and Wayne counties remain at the “low” transmission level.

Meanwhile, another school moved to online-only classes after a cluster of infections: Skyline High School, in the Granite School District, announced Thursday that it was closing its doors for two weeks.

And Intermountain Healthcare confirmed that an employee had died from COVID-19. She was not a health care worker, but “she was a beloved team member on her unit at Intermountain Medical Center and made a positive impact on those with whom she worked,” stated an Intermountain news release. Spokesman Jess Gomez didn’t identify the woman, saying her family “has asked for privacy at this time but wants the public to know COVID-19 is real and asks for people to take precautions in their daily lives to reduce transmission of the virus in the community.”

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who was elected this week to succeed Herbert as governor, told reporters Thursday that vaccine distribution will be his focus after his inauguration in January.

An influx of testing supplies should come into the state in the next few weeks, Cox said, adding that officials are also working to hire additional contact tracers.

He said the disease is primarily spreading between family members and friends and urged people to use the same caution in social settings that they show when in public.

“The spread is happening in our homes, and it’s killing people, and it’s overwhelming our hospitals,” Cox said. “This is crunch time. The next two months are absolutely critical. We are in a dire situation.”

— Salt Lake Tribune reporter Bethany Rodgers contributed to this report.