Nearly 1 in 4 coronavirus tests are positive and we haven’t seen full impact of Thanksgiving, says Utah’s epidemiologist

As COVID-19 hospitalizations rise, Gov. Gary Herbert attributes upticks to increased social gatherings

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Social gatherings were driving a new surge of coronavirus cases in Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert acknowledged — but he said he was not considering any further restrictions on get-togethers, even as hospitalizations and deaths from the virus continued to rise to record levels.

Instead, he implored Utahns to continue wearing masks and social distancing, even while conceding those pleas had gone unheeded so far.

“The next 45 to 60 days will be critical,” he said. “We’re on the uptick now and we can’t let our guard down.”

The rate of new coronavirus cases in Utah had been declining during the Thanksgiving holiday, but rose sharply again this week. With the 3,945 new coronavirus cases reported Thursday, the state has averaged 2,627 new positive test results a day for the past week, the Utah Department of Health reported.

“Unfortunately, as we’re starting to see now and we’re not surprised, the case numbers are starting to go back up,” Herbert said at a Thursday news conference.

He attributed the decline in cases around Thanksgiving to a two-week emergency order that banned gatherings with people from outside one’s own household.

“It did work,” he said. “I think people did in fact become more cognizant, and I think more deliberative and cautious in their behavior.”

But a few days before Thanksgiving, Herbert eliminated all limits on informal gatherings, even 10-person limits that had been in place since mid-October in counties where transmission levels were high. In Thursday’s news conference, Herbert likened such measures to “gestapo tactics.”

“With Thanksgiving coming, I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for us to say we’re going to have the police looking though your windows and seeing what you’re doing in your home,he said.

Still, he noted, in the absence of the order, social gathering practices in Utah are “not working well.” While he said national research has shown Utah ranks in the middle of the 50 states for masking compliance, the state ranks 46th or 47th for social distancing.

And there appears to be immediate fallout from the apparent rise in contact after the emergency order was dismantled last week. The percentage of test results that come back positive has risen sharply in recent days, to 24.2% for the past week — again approaching the record high after a two-week decline. State officials have said the higher the percentage of positive results, the likelier it is that a large number of infected people aren’t being tested and may be spreading the virus unwittingly.

“Transmission is still definitely widespread throughout the state,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said at the news conference. “We likely don’t understand the full impact yet of Thanksgiving on Utah.”

The holiday’s impact on hospitalizations is even further away, with rising hospital admissions typically lagging behind rising diagnoses by seven to 10 days.

But hospitalizations already were rising sharply Thursday, with 597 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported — well above the previous record high of 575 patients.

In total, 8,548 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, 1,170 of those in the past two weeks.

The state has contracted with four long-term care facilities, at a cost of $700,000 per month, to care for some hospital patients, Herbert said.

It’s a “pressure release valve,” he said, “... even though it may not be as good as what they might find in a hospital.”

Dunn said Utah also has adopted new recommendations to align with quarantine guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — those exposed to COVID-19 can now quarantine for 10 days, instead of 14, and those who remain asymptomatic can test out of quarantine on the seventh day.

Thursday marked the end of the virus’s deadliest 30-day stretch since the pandemic began in Utah, with nearly 300 deaths in the past month. Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 917 Thursday, with 11 fatalities reported since Wednesday:

  • A Carbon County man, age 65 to 84.

  • Five Salt Lake County men, one older than 85 and four ages 65 to 84.

  • Two Utah County men, one age 45 to 64 and another age 65 to 84.

  • A Weber County man, older than 85.

  • A Weber County woman, age 45 to 64.

  • A Washington County woman, age 65 to 84.

There were 13,185 new test results reported Thursday, above the weeklong average of about 12,300 new tests per day.

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Infection rates were the worst by far in Wasatch County, where one in every 54 residents had tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks — the highest rate of any county in Utah at any time since the pandemic began. Wasatch County was followed by Sanpete, Utah, Washington, Cache and Morgan counties, where at least 1 in every 75 people had tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks — meaning their cases are considered “active.”

Of the 98 “small areas” studied by health officials in Utah, only northern Orem had a higher infection rate than Wasatch County. The northern neighborhoods of Orem have had the state’s highest case rates since mid-October; as of Thursday, at least 1 in every 50 residents was diagnosed with an active case.