It’s ‘good news’ that COVID-19 case counts are ‘going in the right direction,’ Dr. Angela Dunn says

‘We still have quite a high number of cases,’ said state epidemiologist.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Hailee Calderon, case manager at the West Jordan Care Center, tilts her head back as the Utah Department of Health tests staff for the coronavirus on Thursday, May 21, 2020. Utah's daily cases of the coronavirus appear to be plateauing.

In the last half of September, the average number of new COVID-19 cases statewide has gone from a peak of more than 1,600 a day to less than 1,400.

Gov. Spencer Cox has touted the dip in the rolling seven-day average, which hit an eight-month high of 1,634 new cases per cay on Sept. 15 — due mostly to a surge created by the delta variant. It stood at 1,355 per day on Thursday.

“These are good indicators that we have summited the peak of the delta variant, and we have started down the other side,” Cox said Thursday, during his monthly televised news conference from KUED’s studios in Salt Lake City. Similar drops have been occurring in the other states.

In Salt Lake County, “we’ve definitely been in a plateau, followed by a decline, since the beginning of September, which is fantastic,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department and the former state epidemiologist.

Dunn said the county has seen fewer people getting tested for COVID-19 in the last few weeks, “so it’s really hard to know how true that decline in cases is.”

Public health experts also rely on other metrics, Dunn said, such as tracking the number of people who come into emergency rooms and urgent-care centers with COVID-like symptoms. Those numbers also have been declining recently, she said, “so that’s really, really good news that gives us confidence that it really is a true decline in cases.”

While the statewide decline also is encouraging, the current state epidemiologist said, it’s too early to celebrate.

“If anything, we’re plateauing right now,” Dr. Leisha Nolen told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday. “The trend downward looks like it’s stopped. I don’t think we want to make predictions.”

Thursday’s average was 14 cases higher than Wednesday’s average of 1,341, which was 11 cases higher than Tuesday’s average of 1,330. Those are all still below the mid-September peak, but rising slightly for three days running.

Nolen cited surveys the Utah Department of Health has conducted, which say Utahns are wearing face masks more often now than they were earlier in the summer — which could explain why the average case counts have dipped since Sept. 15.

“We want to continue to encourage people to do that, because even if we did crest at this point, we still have quite a high number of cases,” Nolen said. “So the risk is still there, so we need people to continue to be diligent. … If they suddenly drop their guard, I think we’ll go back to where we were before.”

Right now, Nolen said, between 10% and 15% of tests administered yield positive results. That’s better than the alarming 30% test positivity rates the state recorded last winter, when the pandemic was at its worst, but higher than the optimum level of about 4% positivity.

A higher positive rate “means we’re definitely missing cases,” Nolen said.

While case counts seem to have declined in the last two weeks or so, other statistics are lagging. Hospitalizations are still quite high, Nolen said, as are the daily additions to the state’s death toll. Hospitalization figures tend to lag behind the case counts by a couple of weeks, Nolen said, and the number of deaths lag a couple of weeks after that.

The seven-day case average is a better metric for spotting trends than the daily case counts, which can fluctuate wildly during a week, Nolen said. For example, UDOH on Thursday recorded 1,704 new cases, well above the weekly average, while last Sunday’s count was below 1,000.

Collecting such data hinges on how many people are getting tested, which “is so dependent on human behavior,” Nolen said.

“If people get worried, they are more likely to get tested, and we can then understand what the true trends are,” she said. “If people become less and less worried, they’re less likely to go get tested — and then we know there are a lot of hidden cases in the community.”

Dunn said the statistics throughout the pandemic have been a “roller coaster.”

“When cases get high, all of a sudden we get really long lines at our testing sites because everybody thinks they have COVID. And then we drop our cases and people feel safer to go out,” Dunn said. “Right now, we need to keep maintaining our vigilance.”

The plateau, Dunn said, is a positive sign, and “I don’t want to minimize the good news that we’re going in the right direction. I just don’t want people to think that we’re there, and they can let up. What that means is to keep doing what we’re doing right now, especially as the winter is coming.”