SALT LAKE CITY — Just under two weeks after Gov. Gary Herbert implemented a universal public mask mandate and other restrictions, Utah’s coronavirus surge doesn’t appear to be slowing down as the state surpassed its daily record of new COVID-19 cases with 4,588.

The Beehive State on Friday beat its previous daily high — which occurred just Thursday — by 620 cases.

“It’s going to be impossible for us to say whether or not those mandates had an effect. We don’t know, kind of, what would have happened — maybe without those mandates our cases would’ve been 6,000 today,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician.

But he said the state should have seen a reduction of cases by now due to the mandates. In the week before Herbert implemented the mask mandate, 72% of residents were observed wearing masks indoors and 51% outdoors, according to observational and survey data from the Utah Department of Health.

It’s unclear what compliance has looked like throughout the state since the mandate took effect.

“What we can say is that the mandates didn’t work well enough. They may have worked — they may have prevented 6,000 cases — but they didn’t work well enough because we still have the highest amount of COVID-19 transmission that we’ve ever seen, and our hospitals are still bulging at the seams,” Stenehjem explained.

Despite the ever-rising surge, Herbert on Thursday said that although he will renew the mask mandate, the restriction on casual social gatherings with members of separate households will expire Monday, allowing families to gather on Thanksgiving.

But hospital leaders and local officials on Friday urged people to celebrate within their own household groups.

“Family members should be very worried that they’ll catch COVID-19 if they gather in groups, because our community rate is so high that if we gather with people outside of our homes, that is an incredible way to amplify the transmission of COVID-19,” Stenehjem said.

“Today’s case count is 4,500, the highest it’s ever been. And this reflects transmission from seven to 10 days ago, so we know that if people are going to be congregating in groups next week for Thanksgiving, we’re going to further amplify the spread of COVID-19 and our cases are going to continue to rise. And we’re currently at 93% capacity in our ICUs, which is above that critical threshold of 85%,” he said.

University of Utah freshman Daniel Wray swabs his nostril as he takes a rapid COVID-19 test at Rice-Eccles Stadium in 2020.
University of Utah freshman Daniel Wray swabs his nostril as he takes a rapid COVID-19 test at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Friday, Nov. 20, 2020. The university has launched an initiative to test 32,000 students for COVID-19 before the Thanksgiving break. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

The cases confirmed on Friday won’t result in hospitalizations for between seven to 14 days, Stenehjem noted. Add in holiday gatherings, and the state will see more cases and hospitalizations that “we just don’t have the room or the capacity to manage.”

Officials at University of Utah Health also say they don’t recommend gathering over the holiday season, but they urge those who do so to ventilate rooms, wear masks and limit time together.

In a video shared on social media, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall discussed with Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, how her family will mark the holiday to give others ideas to celebrate safely.

Dunn said she doesn’t have any extended family members in the state, “and so we won’t be grappling with that inner family conflict when you’re telling people they can’t come over for dinner.”

She said they will order Thanksgiving takeout from a local restaurant and “spend the day outside” as a family.

“Our local restaurants and local businesses have been the hardest hit, as you know, over the course of the pandemic economically speaking, and so you get to have delicious takeout from a local business that you’re supporting,” Mendenhall said.

The mayor urged residents to “stay home and stay at home with the people in your household only while we celebrate this holiday season in a whole new way.”

“Holidays should and will look different this year. And that is OK. Let’s make the most of it. #StrongerTogether,” Dunn tweeted later Friday.

On Thursday, Herbert also said that for the safest Thanksgiving holiday, Utahns should “only gather with those in your own home” and wear masks when others are present, as well as place 6 feet between each guest.

New cases

Friday’s record cases were confirmed out of 18,378 people tested, with a 25% positive rate, according to the Utah Department of Health. The rolling seven-day average for new cases is now 3,331 per day, and the average positive test rate is 23.6%.

On Friday, 533 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, 182 of whom were in intensive care units. ICUs across the state were 89.3% full overall, while referral ICUs that can treat the most serious patients were 93.8% full.

The Utah Department of Health is now releasing breakdowns of total capacity being used by COVID-19 patients versus noncoronavirus patients. On Thursday, the latest day for which that data is available, COVID-19 patients accounted for 34% of the overall ICU use.

COVID-19 hospitalizations have fallen slightly since Tuesday, when a record 550 were hospitalized.

Seventeen new deaths were also reported Friday, bringing the state’s toll due to the disease to 773.

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The latest deaths included six Utah County residents: two men and one woman between 65 and 84, all of whom were hospitalized when they died; two men between 45 and 64, one of whom was hospitalized; and a man older than 85, who was not hospitalized.

Salt Lake County also saw six resident deaths: a woman between 25 and 44; a man between 45 and 64; two men and one woman between 65 and 84; and a man older than 85, all of whom were hospitalized when they died.

Two Washington County residents also died: a man older than 85, who was not hospitalized when he died; and a woman between 45 and 64, who was hospitalized. One Davis County man, one Weber County man and one Juan County man, all of whom were older than 85, also died.

To date, 170,584 cases have been confirmed out of 1,315,034 people tested in Utah, with an overall positive rate of 13%. Hospitalizations since the outbreak began now total 7,350.

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