SALT LAKE CITY — Two Utahns have tested positive for COVID-19, two health workers who cared for them are under quarantine, and 200 more people who returned from trips to at-risk countries or cruises are being monitored by health officials.
The coronavirus is definitely here in Utah.
“We are moving into the mitigation phase of the disease,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said during a media briefing Tuesday. “And what that means is, the biggest risk to the health and safety of people here in the state of Utah is overwhelming our medical facilities. ... And so what we’re trying to do, what we will try to do, is slow the velocity of the spread of the disease.”
Overwhelming the health care system causes a higher loss of life as those most at risk aren’t able to receive the treatment they need, he said.
Every day, 15 samples originally taken from patients for other potential diseases — mostly influenza — and submitted to the health department will be randomly tested for the coronavirus, Cox said. The state is looking into the communities at large for possible spread.
By the end of the week, the state will be able to test more than 100 samples a day after purchasing new equipment, Cox added.
“And that will help us determine if there is community spread out there,” he said.
For those just getting backs from trips to China, Iran or cruises: “We reach out to them proactively to assess their symptoms, recommend they voluntarily quarantine,” Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said Tuesday morning.
Because two health care workers who took care of the two confirmed patients needed to quarantine, Cox urged people who suspect they might have the virus to call ahead before going into a hospital.
Meanwhile, those traveling from other countries with outbreaks like Italy, South Korea and Japan are told to watch for symptoms when they return and to contact the health department if they experience symptoms.
The state has also had discussions with “every” large organization in the state, including the Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, about their plans for large gatherings and how to combat the illness’ spread, Cox said. The Church of Jesus Christ’s general conference is scheduled to begin April 4.
Dunn told House GOP lawmakers in their caucus meeting Tuesday afternoon that it’s likely a matter of time based on worldwide patterns that the virus will spread in the community.
“There are kind of all warning signs that we’re not out of the thick of it,” Dunn said. “We’re expecting more and more throughout the U.S. and specifically in Utah.”
The Utah Legislature has said it will approve $16 million for the coronavirus response. The state also has a $4 million emergency fund. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence announced Monday there will be $8.5 billion available as part of a supplemental bill available to states, Gov. Gary Herbert noted to reporters Tuesday afternoon.
The first patient, a Davis County resident, was diagnosed Friday after returning from a cruise. The news that the person had attended a BYU basketball game on Feb. 22 prompted anxiety in the community.
The Utah County Health Department reported that it was contacting people who sat within 6 feet of the resident, who is over 60 years old, to let them know of the possible exposure. Dunn noted Tuesday the 14-day incubation period for the virus has passed, and the people have been told to watch for symptoms.
The second patient confirmed to have the illness is a woman over 60 who lives in the Weber-Morgan Health District, Dunn reported in a news conference earlier in the day. The woman is hospitalized at Intermountain McKay Dee Hospital in serious condition.
“We just found out last night, and so we’re still doing the contact tracing,” Dunn said.
Three high-risk people who came into close contact with the woman have been tested, and more could be identified, she said.
Those who have been tested so far who came in contact with either of the two confirmed patients have tested negative. The second patient has not been to any large events that would put others at risk, Dunn said.
About 100 people in Utah have been tested so far, Dunn said.
Those over 60, especially those with underlying medical conditions, “should really take this seriously, and should be extra cautious especially when doing things like planning travel, attending large group events,” Dunn said.
They should prepare for a potential 14-day quarantine at home, she said, and ensure they have enough food, medications and things to do.
“For those that are less than 60, we really want the public to understand that if they are sick they shouldn’t be visiting those in the older age group,” Dunn said.
The woman originally had respiratory symptoms including a cough and fever, then developed more severe symptoms, Dunn said.
She fell ill shortly after she returned to Utah from travel to Florida, the Bahamas and Nevada, Dunn said. The woman was not on a cruise ship, but traveled on a boat that went to the Bahamas. She was tested for the illness after doctors ruled out other infectious diseases, according the epidemiologist.
While anxiety grows as the number of cases continues swelling in the U.S., the Red Cross is asking people who can to donate blood to prevent a shortage.
“We’re asking the American people to help keep the blood supply stable during this challenging time. As communities across the country prepare for this public health emergency, it’s critical that plans include a readily available blood supply for hospital patients,” said Chris Hrouda, president of Red Cross Blood Services, in a statement.
“As fears of coronavirus rise, low donor participation could harm blood availability at hospitals, and the last thing a patient should worry about is whether lifesaving blood will be on the shelf when they need it most,” Hrouda said.
Contributing: Herb Scribner, Lisa Riley Roche