Salt Lake County mayor calls for statewide stay-at-home order

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Arguing that the coronavirus “does not recognize county lines,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson called on Utah leaders Thursday to enact a statewide stay-at-home order she says could help ease the impact of the virus on health care systems in larger metropolitan areas.

There are stay-at-home orders in five of Utah’s 29 counties: Davis, Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele and Wasatch. The state has urged Utahns to voluntarily social distance through a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” initiative announced last week, but there are no penalties for people who don’t follow that guidance in counties without a mandate.

During a livestreamed news conference on Thursday, Wilson acknowledged that some areas of the state have smaller populations and haven’t been as affected by the virus as others. Kane County, for example, was one of the rural areas reporting no confirmed cases, while Salt Lake County had 476.

But the mayor argued that a failure to social distance anywhere in the state could have devastating results.

“I fear that as cases increase if we don’t social distance in rural communities and other places that those hospitals will be overwhelmed and lives will be lost,” she said, noting that there are several rural counties that have no intensive care unit beds at all.

“Ultimately the system moves toward the Wasatch Front,” Wilson added. “Where we don’t have the capacity in other counties as far along as we are, we’re going to see the movement of people to the hospital system here and our model and efforts are really focused generally on our county population. So the more each county is required to do, the more effective the entire system is.”

A March report from the Society of Critical Care Medicine found that the availability of intensive care beds ranges greatly in the United States, with more than nine out of 10 nationally in metropolitan areas with a population of more than 50,000 and just 1% in rural areas, NPR has reported.

In Utah, health officials have said for weeks that the state is taking inventory of critical hospital resources in preparation for a major coronavirus outbreak. But there still are no exact and up-to-date counts of mechanical ventilators or beds in the ICUs of Utah’s hospitals, Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the state Health Department, told The Salt Lake Tribune late last week.

When Gov. Gary Herbert was asked last week why he chose not to issue a stay-at-home order, which is now in place in at least 38 other states, he said he thought the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directive was “a more positive route.”

“We think we have enough fear about this without adding to it,” he said, arguing that “shelter-in-place” terminology sounded like a World War II effort.

Herbert said at the time that the state would continue to look at data about the spread of the virus and how various measures are affecting it. If those numbers look different in a week, he said, the state could consider stronger measures.

In Salt Lake County at least, Wilson said there are signs the social distancing measures and “clear direction to the community” of the stay-at-home order issued over the weekend appear to be helping limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“The data now shows we have a hill and not a Mount Olympus,” she said.

Salt Lake County Health Department Director Gary Edwards said the county is seeing a decline in the number of daily reported cases over the past six days, even with more testing.

But he raised concern about the number of young people aged 20-29 who have contracted the virus so far, which he said “signals that this significant population is not taking the social distancing message seriously.”

“If we can’t get a better control on this age group, we won’t continue to see that decline in daily cases that was shown previously,” Edwards continued. “While these individuals may not experience the same seriousness of illness that those in the 60 and older age group may experience, they are contributing to that potential surge in hospitalization that we are trying hard to make sure does not happen.”

If hospital beds are taken by 20- and 30-year-olds, that could take a bed from someone in their 60s — an age group that the Centers for Disease Control has identified as being at higher risk for severe health impacts as the result of the virus.

Edwards referenced a hashtag the county Health Department started after a BYU-Idaho student posted screen grabs of text messages with her roommate discussing household plans to manage the spread of COVID-19. The roommate declined to stop having people over — particularly a guest named Brett — prompting the county to issue the recommendation: #StayHomeBrett.

The hashtag went viral — but Edwards said the county is now encouraging use of a different social media tagline.

“Now it’s #EveryoneIsBrett,” he said. “We are all Brett. We have an obligation to our community, to our friends, to our family. Let’s all practice safe social distancing. Please, stay safe, stay home.”