Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
Utah’s rate of new COVID-19 diagnoses and hospitalizations continued to rise to unprecedented levels Tuesday, as the state reported 2,517 new cases, an outbreak at the Utah State Prison continued to worsen, and the Utah National Guard stepped up its help with the state’s response.
With 11 new deaths, Tuesday also marked the end of the virus' deadliest 14-day stretch since the pandemic began; more than 90 Utahns have died from COVID-19 in the past two weeks.
For the past week, the state has averaged more than 2,500 new positive test results a day, continuing a streak of new record highs, the Utah Department of Health reported — and Tuesday’s high comes despite the fact that there are generally lower case numbers on Mondays and Tuesdays, due to less testing and delays on the weekends.
Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 672 on Tuesday, with 11 fatalities reported since Monday:
Three Salt Lake County men, one each from the age groups of 25 to 44, 45 to 64 and older than 85.
A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85.
Two Wasatch County women, ages 65 to 84.
A Davis County man, age 65 to 84.
Three Utah County men, one each from the age groups of 45 to 64, 65 to 84, and older than 85.
A Washington County man, age 65 to 84.
Hospitalizations held steady Tuesday, with 435 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 411 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — a figure that has risen continuously since early October.
In total, 6,284 Utahns have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up a record 122 patients from Monday. More than 600 Utahns have been hospitalized in the last week alone.
For the past week, 21.9% of all tests have come back positive — a record-high 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 nearly 13,000 new test results reported on Tuesday.
The Utah National Guard on Tuesday was staffing a COVID-19 testing station in the parking lot outside UDOH’s Salt Lake City offices, part of the duties of about 300 soldiers and airmen deployed to help the state with testing, contact tracing and other duties, said Col. Tammy Manwaring, commander of the Guard’s Joint Task Force 97.
The Guard’s mission, Manwaring said, is “to fill those gaps and enhance response. The health care workers are doing their primary jobs. This being a pandemic, the enhancement was needed, so we came in to assist.”
Some members of the Guard started helping UDOH in March, in the early days of the pandemic, Manwaring said. The bulk of the Guard’s efforts began on May 11, she said.
The Guard is staffing 25 mobile testing units that are popping up to conduct COVID-19 tests for populations around Utah, Manwaring said. Those units average around 1,750 tests a day, she said.
Soldiers and airmen are also involved with contact tracing, managing long-term care facilities, organizing warehouses with medical supplies, staffing state labs, and other missions, Manwaring said.
Meanwhile, as temperatures drop, the University of Utah is moving most of its testing indoors. Instead of four drive-up sites, U. Health is offering COVID-19 testing by appointment in its 12 community clinics.
The U. has been planning for this transition since July, when staff was sweltering in high summer temperatures. Now, with staff struggling to conduct tests with freezing fingers, the low temperatures are causing each test to take longer, said Nikki Gilmore, the nurse overseeing the drive-up tents.
With other respiratory illnesses on the rise in winter months, the move indoors also will allow patients with more serious symptoms to be examined for other possible causes such as flu or strep infections, said Dr. Richard Orlandi, associate chief medical officer of ambulatory health for the U.
“As we move into cold and flu season, we need to be evaluating patients,” Orlandi said. “Some patients need to come inside to have their lungs listened to, or get a chest X-ray.”
The U. has shifted to saliva testing for most patients, which is less “aerosol-generating” than the swab tests patients previously received, Orlandi said; that means conducting tests indoors has become safer. COVID-19 tests will be conducted in areas separate from other patients to prevent the virus from transmitting inside the clinics.
The testing booth at Rice-Eccles Stadium will continue to operate, mostly for tests of people who work at the campus. To schedule a test, visit the University of Utah Health website or call 801-587-0712.
As of Tuesday, two-week case counts reached record highs in Box Elder, Cache, Sanpete, Sevier, Davis, Salt Lake, Carbon, Emery, Washington, Iron, Beaver, Garfield, Summit, Tooele, Duchesne, Uintah, Utah, Wasatch and Weber counties.
Utah County again reported the state’s highest number of new cases per capita for the past week.
But of Utah’s 98 “small areas," used by state officials to track local health data, the worst infection rates for the week were reported in Draper, where a coronavirus outbreak at the Utah State Prison has continued to spread.
As of Tuesday, nearly 800 people incarcerated at the Draper prison had tested positive for the virus, with 490 of those cases still considered active cases. Officials say 303 inmates are considered “recovered.”
The number of cases at the Utah State Prison have exploded since an initial outbreak began in October, believed to be tied to a medic who treated several inmates who later tested positive. While the initial outbreak had been limited to one area of the Draper facility, the virus has now spread to almost every other housing unit at the prison. There’s also been 29 cases reported at the prison facility in Gunnison.
Utah prison officials announced last week that an 82-year-old inmate who had tested positive for the virus had died in his cell. He is the first incarcerated person in Utah to die after testing positive for the virus, but prison officials said he had other health issues and a medical examiner will determine whether he died because of the coronavirus or something else.