SALT LAKE CITY — A new record number of deaths caused by COVID-19 was reported in Utah on Thursday, as the health department listed 30 deaths and continued full capacity at hospitals throughout the state.
“It’s a tragic reminder that while there is a lot of hope on the horizon with the vaccine, we still have a long ways to go and we still need to protect those who are most vulnerable,” Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said.
Those deaths, she said, occurred in the past four weeks and are a direct result of the surge in cases experienced throughout Utah in November.
“It is so important that we continue to limit the number of new infections,” Dunn said.
Health officials also announced changes to quarantine procedures in K-12 schools starting Jan. 1, but also that all university and college students will be tested upon their return to campus for the new year. The idea is to identify any positive cases before rampant transmissions can occur, such as what happened with the return of students throughout Utah in August.
Students at Utah’s elementary, junior high and high schools will no longer be asked to quarantine if both parties were wearing masks when potential exposure to a positive case of the virus is determined to have happened at school.
“We find that is a low-risk situation. And actually, in class in school is a low-risk scenario,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said on Thursday, adding that the result will be “less disruption at school — which will be good for teachers — and less disruption at home. That’s going to be good for parents and guardians, particularly single parents.”
He said data shows fewer than 1% of cases are resulting from “mask on mask” exposure among students in school, when both contacts are wearing a mask, which is the rule when students attend in-person schooling.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said too many students are being placed in quarantine.
“The new protocol should allow less disruption to students, educators and families while keeping students safe at school from the virus,” she said.
Learning how to handle quarantined students has “been one of the biggest burdens for teachers,” said Bryce Dunford, president of the Jordan Board of Education.
Many times when the school board voted to transition schools to online learning, it was due to high numbers of students and, at times, staff on quarantine. But as students and staff have undergone testing to shorten the length of their quarantines, it’s become evident that there have been low rates of transmission in schools, he said.
With that no longer the issue that it’s been, I think this will really help to keep schools open as much as possible,” Dunford said.
Dickson said testing of secondary students and staff is an important companion to the updated quarantine, as “prevention and early intervention will keep transmission rates low.”
School closures in the new year will also be based on the percentage of students who test positive with COVID-19 — with 1% at schools with a population over 1,500 and 15 cases for those with fewer than 1,500 students. Elementary schools should continue with the same classroom threshold, per the recommendations contained in the new public health order.
Schools reaching the outbreak threshold can either move students to virtual education for 10 days or offer all students an opportunity to test for COVID-19 and stay in school if they are negative.
The purpose, said health department interim director Rich Saunders, is to “promote consistent and safe in-person learning, as opposed to oscillating between in-person and virtual learning.”
The Utah Education Association said it was “disappointed” with the change, saying it puts educators at an increased risk, and adds to anxiety and stress. It encouraged districts to do what they need to in order to keep educators and school staff safe.
Herbert said teachers shouldn’t be anxious about the risk, as “the classroom is a low-risk area.”
Not to mention, teachers are next in line to receive the much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine, which is now being administered to health care workers throughout the state. Herbert said teachers can expect access to the vaccine by mid-January.
“We’ve had good news with the coming of the vaccine,” he said. “For most of us, that’s the beginning of the end, we’re really turning a corner now on this pandemic.”
While vaccines will continue to be delivered to Utah, allowing everyone the opportunity to get one “before summer starts,” Herbert said he wants people to continue social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands often and staying home when they are sick.
“That will be necessary for a number of months,” he said.
Another 3,203 cases of COVID-19 were reported in Utah on Thursday, bringing the total number of known infections to 243,918 since mid-March.
Saunders said he appreciates the work people did to limit contact throughout the Thanksgiving holiday and he pleaded with Utahns to continue more of the same while celebrating the holidays in the coming weeks.
“The safest gathering is the smallest gathering,” said Joe Dougherty, director of public affairs with the Utah Division of Emergency Management.
A telephone survey has identified that 70% of Utahns either intend or are “somewhat likely” to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to them, which Dunn said is “fantastic.”
“I anticipate that confidence will grow as the vaccination process carries on,” she said.
At least that many would need to get the vaccine to achieve herd immunity in the state.
Dunn announced that the seven-day average number of new cases is now 2,570 per day, which is down from an average of 2,816 cases per day last week. The average percent of positive tests is at 22.3%, which is a decrease of nearly 4% since the 26.2% average a week ago.
The health department, she said, has started reporting the number of vaccinations shipped to and administered in Utah, with only the first doses of a two-dose vaccination having been administered to 470 so far.
Hospitals are required to track and report those doses within 24 hours of administration.
“It’s an exciting step forward in our ability to control the pandemic,” Dunn said.
There are 556 people hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout the state, and she said “hospitals are operating at full capacity and having to make decisions on how to care for patients.”
“Our hospitals need us,” she continued.
Alcohol curfew lifted
With commitments in place from Utah bar and restaurant owners, Herbert also announced Thursday that alcohol can once again be sold and served after 10 p.m. beginning on Friday, Dec. 18.
Herbert announced the change, saying the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic and should experience some relief with that curfew removed.
“We obviously want to make sure our restaurants and bars are safe places for people to go,” he said during his monthly PBS news conference on Thursday. “We want to give them the opportunity not only to survive, but to thrive.”
Utah’s bars and restaurants have agreed to enforce physical distancing and limit capacities, but also require masks whenever patrons aren’t actively eating or drinking, and also require that eating and drinking to remain stationary.
“The arrival of the vaccine in our state has lifted our spirits, we need to continue to be diligent,” Saunders said.
Herbert said the statewide mask mandate will continue into at least the near future.
“Stay the course. Do the right thing. We’re going to get out of this together,” he said. “I believe 2021 is going to be a good year ... the year we’ve all been praying for.”
The COVID-19 deaths reported Thursday include:
- Three Salt Lake County women and two Salt Lake County men, all older than 85, who were residents at long-term health care facilities when they died.
- Two Weber County men, both between 45 and 64 who were residents at long-term health care facilities.
- Two Utah County women and one Utah County man, all between 65 and 84, who were residents at long-term health care facilities.
- Two Salt Lake County women and one Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, who were residents at long-term health care facilities.
- A Utah County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
- A Utah County man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized.
- Two Weber County women, both between 65 and 84, who were hospitalized.
- A Morgan County woman older than 85 who was not hospitalized.
- An Iron County man between 65 and 84 who was not hospitalized.
- A Washington County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
- A Weber County woman older than 85 who was not hospitalized.
- A Carbon County man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized.
- Two Cache County men between 65 and 84 who were both hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman older than 85 who was hospitalized.
- A Box Elder County woman between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
- A Davis County man between 65 and 84 who was not hospitalized.
- A Sevier County woman older than 85 who was not hospitalized.
- A Sanpete County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
- A Weber County woman between 45 and 64 who was a resident at a long-term care facility.
New COVID-19 cases reported on Thursday by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 847
- Utah County, 794
- Davis County, 386
- Southwest Utah, 280
- Weber-Morgan, 278
- Bear River, 260
- Central Utah, 69
- Tooele County, 54
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 44
- Summit County, 37
- Southeast Utah, 28
- Wasatch County, 16
- San Juan County, 10
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez