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 morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
Vaccines are flowing, deaths are down and masks could be lowered soon. During the week that Utah marked a year under the threat of the coronavirus, the yoke of the pandemic has begun to lift.
This week, Utah recorded the fewest deaths attributed to COVID-19 in a seven-day span since late October. Since last Monday, 41 people have died from the virus, including one reported by the Utah Department of Health on Sunday. That’s the fewest deaths since Oct. 19-25, a week that saw 29 deaths, and is less than half of last week’s tally of 83. The high was 116 from Dec 7-13.
And the death count — which is closing in on 2,000 since the state marked its first virus-related death on March 22, 2020 — should continue to drop due to two factors: more people getting vaccinated and fewer people becoming extremely sick.
Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday opened up vaccination appointments to an even wider swath of people, including anyone 50 and older and those 18 and older with certain lower-level health conditions. That’s in addition to those age 16 and older with high-risk health conditions, teachers, health care workers, long-term care facility workers and first responders.
“This is the largest group we’ve ever added,” Cox said Thursday. “And we are having more and more vaccines come into the state every week. That’s why we feel comfortable doing this.”
Utah has received 185,175 doses of vaccine in the past five days. That includes four days of 30,000 doses or more, plus an additional 400 on Sunday.
Some of those are the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Feb. 27 and began going into arms in Utah on Wednesday. It is a single-dose vaccination, as opposed to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that require a follow-up shot.
Armed with a share of the state’s initial 23,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccines, Summit County took Cox’s step toward more widespread vaccine availability even further. It opened up appointments to anyone 40 and older, from any county, who had pre-registered with the county health department. Rich Bullough, the county’s health director, told the Park Record that individuals 50 and older will still be prioritized, per state mandate.
“Rather than erring on the side of vaccinating fewer people,” Bullough told the Park Record, “I made the decision to vaccinate more people.”
Intermountain Healthcare started allowing those who are newly eligible under Cox’s plan to register to be vaccinated on its website Thursday, despite the governor’s urging that the new group wait until Monday to avoid website crashes.
“It’s not going to be possible for everyone in these areas to get an appointment right away,” Cox said Thursday. He advised that people are “going to have to be patient, going to have to keep checking back.”
Perhaps the wait will be less burdensome with the knowledge that fewer people are becoming severely ill with the virus.
In addition to the lowest death rate in four months, the state is seeing the fewest number of patients in intensive care units for COVID-19 in that span. ICU occupancy is often used as an indicator of future deaths. Currently, 191 people are hospitalized with the virus and 73 are in the ICU, the fewest since Oct. 3.
The average daily case rate has been leveling out as well. The past week has seen just more than 500 cases a day, and that’s including Wednesday’s outlier of 729 new cases. Health officials reported 412 more cases Sunday. Plus, experts believe herd immunity is nearing 30% in the state.
But if the state isn’t careful, those positive gains could be short lived.
Lawmakers approved a bill in the final hours of the legislative session Friday that will end Utah’s statewide mask mandate on April 10. Exceptions will be made for schools and for large public gatherings.
And Thursday, a bill allowing college and university students to attend in-person classes even if they aren’t vaccinated was sent to the governor’s desk to be signed.
Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said the state is still under siege from COVID-19 and the more resilient variants that have recently been discovered. He cautioned against casting aside masks and other precautionary measures too soon.
Only when the number of Utahns who have been vaccinated grows will the state “be able to safely pass the baton from the things that we’re doing to our immunity.
“And right now,” he said, “we’re not there yet.”
Vaccinations administered in past day/total vaccinations • 12,631 / 855,663.
Utahns fully vaccinated • 309,882.
Cases reported in past day • 412.
Deaths reported in past day • 1.
The lone death reported was a Cache County man, age 45-64, who was hospitalized at the time of his death.
Hospitalizations reported in past day • 191. That’s down three from Saturday. Of those currently hospitalized, 73 are in intensive care units — four fewer than on Saturday.
Tests reported in past day • 4,427 people were tested for the first time. A total of 8,818 people were tested.
Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 9.3%. That’s slightly higher than the seven-day average of 9.2%.
The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Sunday’s rate is now at 4.67%, higher than the seven-day average of 4.4%.
Totals to date • 374,850 cases; 1,976 deaths; 14,891 hospitalizations; 2,248,121 people tested.
Correction • Sunday, March 7, 12:47 p.m.: A previous version of this story included an incorrect tally of vaccinations that have been administered in Utah since Saturday.