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Utah County, the state’s second-largest, has the third-most coronavirus cases of any jurisdiction in the state, according to new numbers released by the Utah Department of Health on Monday.
But leaders there say they don’t currently see a need to issue a countywide stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the coronavirus and feel that the governor’s more lenient “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directive is sufficient alone to keep their health care system from being overrun.
“I think it strikes the correct balance in protecting public health and civil liberties and those are both very, very important,” Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie said in an interview Monday. “It’s important as we work through this that we keep an open mind as situations evolve but it’s also important that we don’t go to one extreme or the other.”
The number of confirmed cases in Utah County has grown steadily since last week, from 91 cases on April 1 to 223 on Monday, five days later. In total caseload, Utah County was behind only Salt Lake County, the state’s biggest, which had 777 cases, and Summit County, which had 260. Both of those counties have ordered residents to stay home in nearly all cases except when engaged in what they’ve deemed “essential activities.”
Ralph Clegg, executive director and local health officer in the Utah County Health Department, said the county hasn’t seen a need for a stay-at-home mandate amid “very good cooperation” from Utah County residents for social distancing measures.
“At this point, that’s sufficient for what we need here,” he said.
However, he noted that county leaders continue to evaluate the latest data and would be willing to issue a stay-at-home order — which in many jurisdictions give law enforcement the ability to issue citations to those who don’t comply with guidance aimed at slowing the spread of the virus — if necessary.
“It’s certainly something that needs to be part of the menu as we anticipate and plan,” Clegg added.
While there have been some instances of Utah County residents not taking the coronavirus seriously — including a video that’s been circulating online in recent days that appears to show a group of more than a dozen people in Utah County playing volleyball together — Ivie agreed that people are acting “responsibly as a whole.”
“You’ll be able to find isolated incidents [of misbehavior], right, and those should be responded to,” he said. “But as a whole, the people are acting appropriately. We’re talking about a county of over 600,000 people.”
Ivie and Clegg attributed the rising number of coronavirus cases in Utah County to increased testing capacity in the state.
That’s been helped along by tech leaders from Silicon Slopes, which opened two new testing sites in Utah County last week and has conducted over 700 tests there since that time, according to executive director Clint Betts. Those sites could have contributed to the increase in positive COVID-19 tests overall, said Betts, who’s a member of The Salt Lake Tribune’s board.
But he was hesitant to draw any conclusions without more data.
“I’m being a little cautious as to whether or not our increase in testing is the sole reason for that big of a jump because who knows?” he said. “It could be the fact that people weren’t complying” with social distancing rules.
Betts, who lives in southern Utah County, said he would be supportive of a stay-at-home order, which he thinks makes “a lot of sense.”
“If it saves one person from getting coronavirus, that seems like a good enough reason for me,” he said.
Ivie noted that it’s ultimately up to the county health department to decide whether to offer stricter guidance to residents but said county leaders may push for a stay-at-home mandate if there were projections that their health care system would be stretched too thin.
“We have plenty of ventilators and hospital beds available for those people who are testing positive and having to be hospitalized,” he said. “So for me that’s one of the key factors is, do we have adequate medical facilities and staff available to respond? And as of right now we do, even with the projected increase of cases. If we get to a point that starts to look differently, we’re going to have to get together and reevaluate.”
But Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who called last week on the state to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, argues that the coronavirus “does not recognize county lines.” Failure to social distance anywhere in the state, she argues, could have a disastrous impact on health care systems in larger metropolitan areas.
“Ultimately the system moves toward the Wasatch Front,” she said during a news conference last week. “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.”