Utah marked a somber milestone as the state reported more than 1,000 lives have been lost to COVID-19.

Twenty-one new deaths were reported on Thursday — meaning 1,016 people in Utah have died during the pandemic, according to the Utah Department of Health. It was the third-straight day of reporting more than 20 deaths, which state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said is a direct result of the surge in cases in November.

“The number of deaths is tragic,” she said, adding that in order to prevent more lives from being lost, Utahns should continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands often and stay home whenever sick.

Though with vaccines expected to arrive in the state within 24 hours of Food and Drug Administration approval, there is “a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox.

“This really is the miracle we’ve all been praying for and hoping for,” he said during Thursday’s weekly COVID-19 briefing. “There should be great anticipation, there should be excitement, and more than anything else there should be hope. There is an end to this pandemic and the end is coming.”

His administration, Cox said, intends to get vaccinations to Utahns “quickly and efficiently ... to get people immunized without getting sick.”

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox listens as Gov. Gary Herbert, not pictured, takes questions during a briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Vaccine for teachers

Teachers and staff at Utah’s K-12 schools were added as a top priority on Thursday, along with health care workers on the front lines of treating COVID-19 to get the first available vaccinations in the state.

Gov. Gary Herbert said distribution could begin as early as next week and the state will try to acquire as many doses of the vaccine as possible.

“We need to make sure that our students are going to school to learn, but we need teachers to teach,” he said, adding that immunizing teachers will help minimize disruptions for families and reduce the “ping-pong effect of going back and forth.”

The Utah Education Association applauded the move to prioritize educators.

“Teachers and school staff risk their health each day by being in school face to face with students,” said organization President Heidi Matthews. She said many teachers are in the population most at risk for severe disease.

Herbert said the state is promised 154,600 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine by the end of December, and another 154,600 in January to provide the necessary second dose to achieve full efficacy.

Utah continues to boast one of the lowest mortality rates in the nation, as 0.4% of all cases end in death, far better than the surrounding states. Mortality rates are only better in Vermont, Maine, Oregon, Hawaii and Alaska, where overall incidence is relatively low, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

Herbert said the state mourns each and every death, be it by COVID-19 or other means.

“We take it very seriously,” he said, particularly COVID-19 deaths that could have been prevented.

Gov. Gary Herbert responds to a question about Utah crossing the milestone of 1,000 COVID-19 deaths during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

National toll

The United States as a whole reached a record daily number of deaths on Wednesday, as 3,054 deaths were reported in one day, surpassing the nation’s death toll on Sept. 11, 2001, as the most deadly day for America.

More than 286,000 people in the country have died with COVID-19 since early spring, the CDC reports. The number is expected to continue to climb as more than 106,000 are currently hospitalized throughout America with the virus.

Utah reported 3,401 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday as the overwhelming numbers continue following the Thanksgiving holiday, when many people gathered together despite public health recommendations to avoid doing so. The total number of known infections this far in the pandemic in Utah is 225,946.

Centers for Disease Control and

Herbert chose not to renew restrictions on gathering just days before the holiday, saying he cannot control what goes on inside a person’s home, but said he was grateful that people appear to have abided by the recommendations on their own.

“While we were bracing for a surge, the good news is that it didn’t happen,” he said, confirming that case counts two weeks after the holiday are lower than anticipated.

The majority of COVID-19 deaths in Utah are men, and are people over age 65, though many younger people have died from the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Herbert said another cause of concern is the largely unknown long-term effects of the disease, with a lot of Utahns still struggling.

Utah Department of Health

Tracing by text

The state will launch a new automated contact tracing method on Friday, changing the way people are informed following potential exposure to COVID-19.

People with a positive test who do not respond to a phone call will receive a text with a secure link that will ask for close contact information and ultimately speed up initial case investigation and assist the health department in doing its job.

Utah has tested 1.54 million people for COVID-19, including an increase of 15,613 people tested from Wednesday.

The average number of positive tests each day over the last seven days is 2,816, with the average percent of positive tests at 26.2%, down again slightly from previous days this week, but still one of the highest transmission rates in the country.

There are 554 people currently hospitalized throughout Utah, less than the 581 reported on Wednesday.

“We’ve just been teetering on the edge for about three weeks now with ICU capacity between 85 and 95%, and there seems to be some stabilization on the hospitalization side, with a decrease over the past couple of days,” Cox said during a Thursday meeting with the state’s Emergency Management Administration Council. “Things are definitely trending up. We’re not out of the woods yet and we’ve got a long ways to go.”

Vaccine hopes

With a vaccine on the horizon, Dunn said the majority of Utahns need to plan to get it in order to achieve herd immunity, where disease isn’t spreading rampantly and more normal social gatherings can take place safely.

“We are really relying on a large percentage of the Utah population to get vaccinated,” she said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a briefing on COVID-19 at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Utah’s vaccine distribution plan can be found in detail online, at coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine.

Herbert said the vaccine’s 95% efficacy rating is welcome news, and it will help in bringing down the number of COVID-19 cases in Utah and elsewhere. A U.S. government advisory panel met Thursday to decide whether to recommend the Pfizer vaccine to the FDA, as it was already being distributed in the United Kingdom.

“The vaccine gives us hope that we see the beginning of the end,” Cox said, adding his hope that everyone “gets through the holiday season safe and sound.”

Thursday deaths

Twelve people died of COVID-19 in Salt Lake County, officials reported. Nine of them (eight men) were between the ages of 65 and 84, with six of them in hospital or long-term facilities and three not hospitalized at the time of death; two women over 85 also succumbed, one living in a long-term facility and the other hospitalized; and a woman between the ages of 25 and 44 who was hospitalized.

Utah Department of Health

In Utah County, three men died of the disease: one between the ages of 65 and 84 who was a long-term care facility resident; another age 45-64 who was a long-term care facility resident; and a man over 85 who was a long-term care facility resident.

Two people died in Iron County: a woman older than 85 who was hospitalized and a man between the ages of 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.

Additional victims were a Box Elder County woman between the ages of 65 and 84 who was a long-term care facility resident; a Davis County man between the ages of 65 and 84 who was hospitalized at the time of his death; a Tooele County woman between the ages of 25 and 44 who was hospitalized, and a Uintah County man older than 85 who was not hospitalized.

Utah Department of Health

Total COVID-19 Utah deaths as of Thursday by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 459
  • Utah County, 168
  • Davis County, 72
  • Southwest Utah, 107
  • Weber-Morgan, 70
  • Bear River, 38
  • San Juan County, 32
  • Central Utah, 24
  • Wasatch County, 13
  • Tooele County, 10
  • Southeast Utah, 9
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 9
  • Summit County, 5

Contributing: Annie Knox