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Is Utah seeing a decline in COVID-19 cases?

Spencer Moore, a medical assistant with University of Utah Health, administers COVID-19 tests at the Rice-Eccles Stadium testing site in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.
Spencer Moore, a medical assistant with University of Utah Health, administers COVID-19 tests at the Rice-Eccles Stadium testing site in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Although last week brought Utah lower COVID-19 case counts and a reduced positivity rate, residents’ choices on Thanksgiving will determine whether the trend continues, hospital officials said Monday.

“I do think it’s too early to say. ... I think that we started the trend down before the holiday, and now it’s going to be a wait and see how vigilant the population was over Thanksgiving to stop and slow the spread of the virus,” said Erin Clouse, strategic engagement manager for health sciences at University of Utah Health, who also works on projections for the hospital system.

“We’d have to look at the number of tests that were done as well,” as fewer people tend to get tested over holidays and weekends, said Dr. Todd Vento, Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician.

Testing centers were also closed on Thanksgiving, and some offered reduced hours over the weekend.

On Monday, Utah health officials reported another 1,897 COVID-19 cases out of 4,852 people tested, with a 39% positive rate. The rolling seven-day average for new cases is 2,312 per day, and the average positive test rate is 21.5%.

One week earlier, the state’s rolling average was 3,349 cases per day, and the average positive test rate was 23.6%. On Nov. 11, Utah’s seven-day average positive test rate was about 25%, Clouse noted.

The decreased positivity rate correlates with restrictions put in place this month when Gov. Gary Herbert implemented a universal public mask mandate that will continue until further notice, and put in place a two-week halt on casual social gatherings that ended on Nov. 23.

“We’re also seeing a decrease in the number of new daily admissions to the hospital,” Clouse said. “So we’re seeing a decrease in disease overall. What we haven’t seen yet is the impact of the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Big spreading event?

People tend to get infected between five and seven days after they get exposed, but the incubation period can last up to 14 days, Vento said. Typically, patients get admitted to a hospital within two weeks after their symptoms begin.

“Right now, we’ve been very high but stable in terms of our numbers with regard to hospitalizations at both our medical centers and in our small community hospitals throughout the state at Intermountain,” Vento said.

“But we’ll certainly be concerned about and closely monitoring what happens in the next week and two weeks.”

Vento and Clouse both expressed concern about the fact that Thanksgiving and upcoming holiday celebrations largely take place indoors, increasing the risk for disease spread.

“What I have seen and I’m concerned about, every major holiday up until this point were mostly outside — Fourth of July, Memorial Day — all these holidays were outside in the great outdoors. This is the first holiday that really most of the activities are happening inside. And we know with proper ventilation if you’re outside, it decreases the spread,” Clouse said.

“So now that we’re inside, unless people really took the public health warnings and stayed home and didn’t congregate as multiple household units coming together, this has the potential of being a big spreading event this entire holiday season,” she said.

Vento said those who travel for gatherings end up spending time with those of other households for several days in a single household, “which makes the transmission event even more likely to be in high numbers in terms of those infected.”

Clouse urged people to imagine themselves “back in March,” and take the precautions they did then — except for stocking up on toilet paper.

About 1 in 50 people in Utah currently carry the virus, she said. But in the younger age groups where the virus is more prevalent, it’s about 1 in 34 people who have the virus.

“Don’t be fatigued. There’s a higher risk now of spreading the virus than there was back in March,” she said. “We really took the warnings seriously back in March. We need to keep doing that now.”

Testing young people

On Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, urged young people who traveled for Thanksgiving to assume they’ve been exposed to the disease and get tested.

“If you’re young and you gathered, you need to be tested about five to 10 days later,” Birx said on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” warning those who traveled for Thanksgiving to avoid visiting older relatives.

Vento agrees with that advice.

“In that situation ... treat yourself as if you’re in a quarantine situation,” Vento said. “I certainly think it would be prudent to assume that you could’ve been infected. And remember, many of the infections are not symptomatic.”

He also encouraged those who shared Thanksgiving dinners with others “whom you might not have as much awareness of in terms of their practices, their risk for their own exposures and infections, it would be prudent to assume that you could be infected” and avoid interactions with others who are at risk.

Herbert’s most recent public health order requires colleges, trade schools and universities that are part of the Utah System of Higher Education to test students who attend at least one in-person class each week, or who live on campus, every two weeks. The testing needs to begin no later than January.

The state’s larger universities received rapid antigen tests to start the effort before Thanksgiving. Now, schools that didn’t immediately receive testing supplies from the state have also started testing students.

Asymptomatic tests at Southern Utah University are being administered on a first-come, first-served basis by appointment, according to university officials. Snow College is beginning its testing in the first few weeks of December without appointment.

Deaths, hospitalizations

On Monday, 560 patients were hospitalized with the disease in Utah, which is four fewer than were hospitalized the previous day. Intensive care units in the state were 82.6% full overall, and referral ICUs that can treat the most serious patients were 89.5% full.

Vento said Intermountain has managed its case loads through its contingency planning measures — “load leveling,” moving patients between hospitals with capacity, and bringing on emergency department physicians to care for COVID-19 patients, which they normally wouldn’t do.

Should the need arise, the state remains ready to set up a makeshift hospital at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy. But for now, state officials are also waiting to see what the state’s numbers look like in the next several days, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman with the Utah Division of Emergency Management.

The three deaths reported Monday bring the state’s toll to 871. They were: a Uintah County man between 45 and 64; a Utah County woman between 65 and 84; and a Washington County woman older than 85. All three were hospitalized when they died.

To date, 195,706 cases have been confirmed out of 1,423,079 people tested, with a positive rate of 13.8%. About 134,000 cases are considered recovered after surviving the three-week point since their diagnoses. Hospitalizations since the pandemic began now total 8,135.