Utah cases of COVID-19 have hit ‘a clear plateau,’ Gov. Spencer Cox says, stalling their decline

But the good news is that Utah has been holding off a surge that other states have seen, state epidemiologist adds.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County residents lined up Thursday in Spanish Fork to receive the COVID-19 vaccine from Utah County Health Department, Mar. 25, 2021.

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Utah’s number of new cases of COVID-19 fell back below 500 on Thursday, and the seven-day rolling average of new cases has gone down in the last month.

But that decline has stalled in the last two weeks, at between 375 and 406 cases per day — about the level the state was seeing last August, before the surge in cases in fall and winter.

“We’re in a plateau right now, a clear plateau,” Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday at his weekly COVID-19 briefing. Cox noted that the state’s case counts for three of the last four days were slightly higher than the week before.

Still, that plateau “is really good news,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, because things could be worse.

“The good news is that a lot of the country has been in an increase, and just now starting to get into a plateau — so we’ve been really holding off that additional surge,” Dunn said.

“What’s even better news is that our percent-positivity [in COVID-19 tests] is decreasing,” Dunn said, “which shows that we should start seeing a decline in our cases in the coming days and weeks, because people out there getting tested are tending not to have COVID, which is fantastic.”

And sometime Thursday, Cox said, “somewhere in the state of Utah, some lucky person” was expected get the state’s 2 millionth dose of the vaccine.

He later noted on Twitter that residents who need transportation to a scheduled COVID-19 vaccination appointment in five counties — Box Elder, Davis, Salt Lake, Tooele and Uintah — can get a ride from Lyft at no cost.

The Utah Department of Health also reported that while one more person has died of the virus, the number of Utahns hospitalized for treatment has declined a bit.

The state marked a couple of other milestones Thursday — more than 2.5 million Utahns have been tested for COVID-19, and more than 16,000 have been hospitalized since the pandemic began.

Vaccine doses administered in past day/total doses administered • 34,402 / 1,985,296 total.

Utahns fully vaccinated • 840,382.

Cases reported in past day • 472.

Deaths reported in past day • One: A woman between the ages of 45 and 64 in Summit County.

Tests reported in past day • 6,650 people were tested for the first time. A total of 16,394 people were tested.

Hospitalizations reported in past day • 137. That’s down nine from Wednesday. Of those currently hospitalized, 51 are in intensive care units — six fewer than on Wednesday.

Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 7.1%. That’s higher than the seven-day average of 6%.

The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Thursday’s rate was 2.9%, about the same as the seven-day average of 3%.

[Read more: Utah is changing how it measures the rate of positive COVID-19 tests. Here’s what that means.]

Totals to date • 394,334 cases; 2,178 deaths; 16,004 hospitalizations; 2,512,546 people tested.

The plateau in new cases isn’t uniform across the state. A University of Utah Health analysis earlier this week noted that some local health districts — in Davis County, Wasatch County and the Weber/Morgan Health District — have noted slight increases in case counts in the last couple weeks.

“We haven’t been able to identify any specific source that’s contributing to the increase in cases” in those counties, Dunn said.

And Cox announced that statistics had taken an unfavorable turn in Grand County, which was moved this week to the “high” transmission category — the only county in Utah now at that level.

The state health department hasn’t “seen any dramatic or really obvious impact of ending the [statewide] mask mandate on April 10 to our cases and the spread of COVID,” Dunn added.

Many private businesses and organizations have maintained mask rules on their premises — and, Dunn said, “I will say, just from observing and being out there, people are still tending to wear masks if they choose, which is fantastic.”

Meanwhile, two rural Utah counties, Carbon and Sevier, have been moved from the “moderate” to “low” transmission levels. Thirteen counties, mostly in southern Utah but also remote Daggett and Rich counties, are at the “low” transmission level.

Fifteen counties, including the population centers along the Wasatch Front and the St. George-to-Cedar City corridor, are in the “moderate” category.

Thursday’s briefing was the first time Dunn spoke to the media since she told UDOH staffers Tuesday that she would be leaving the agency to become director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, effective June 1.

At the briefing, Dunn told reporters she would not, for now, take questions about her impending job change. “I was not fired from my current position,” Dunn said. “This was a choice.”

She added: “Until I make that transition, my focus is solely on continuing to inform the COVID-19 statewide response here in Utah.”

Cox thanked Dunn “for clarifying that I did not fire you.” He then joked, “I told her today that I had made an executive order that she could not leave,” adding, “I don’t think I have the authority to do that.”

Dunn is expected to see a dip in her paycheck when she moves to Salt Lake County. Her base pay with the county is expected to be $265,000 a year, with benefits between $40,000 and $50,000, according to a county health department spokesman. That’s a total of between $305,000 and $315,000.

Her state salary in 2020 was $239,000, but her benefits were almost $85,000, for a total compensation of nearly $324,000, according to the state’s transparency website.

Dunn’s compensation from the county will be more than her predecessor, Gary Edwards, is getting. Edwards, who is retiring in June, earned almost $184,000 in salary last year, and more than $61,000 in benefits, for a total of more than $245,000, the state website reported.

One difference is that Edwards, though he has had a long career as a public health administrator, does not have a medical degree, and Dunn does.

By county ordinance, the director of the county health department must either be a physician or have a degree in public health, nursing or public administration. If the director is not a physician, the ordinance requires the department hire someone who is, in another role. With Edwards as director, that responsibility fell to his deputy, Dr. Dagmar Vitek, who is planning to retire later this year, the spokesman said.

— Tribune reporter Leia Larsen contributed to this article.