SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah marked its first death from COVID-19 on Sunday, a mental health expert says the news is likely to amplify the reality of the pandemic for many in the Beehive State.

“I do think it does have important implications, because now it feels local, and though we have had cases, this is the first fatality. And it also feels like this could happen in anyone’s family,” said Kathie Supiano, associate professor at University of Utah College of Nursing and a licensed clinical social worker.

Utah numbers keep rising with 2 dozen more COVID-19 cases
Dining in all Utah restaurants restricted as COVID-19 cases jump to 52

The Utah Department of Health announced Sunday afternoon that a Davis County man over the age of 60 died from COVID-19 earlier in the day. He had been treated for two days at Lakeview Hospital before he died, and officials noted that his infection appears to be travel related and not a case of community spread.

The health department also reported the number of COVID-19 cases in Utah grew to 182 people, up 46 from Saturday’s count.

“Loss of life is truly the worst part of this pandemic,” Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said as state and local health officials offered their condolences to the man’s family during a news conference.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks at the Utah Department of Health during a press conference in Salt Lake City on Sunday, March 22, 2020, as officials announce the state’s first COVID-19-related death. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Health officials across the state are working to prevent more families from going through the same thing, Dunn said.

In a Facebook post, the man’s daughter expressed gratitude to have him as a father.

“He was a giant, so tender and my dad. I got to say I love you. I got to hug him. I got 39 years. I am so blessed,” the daughter said.

After prayers from family that he wouldn’t suffer, he died quickly. The family had known his lungs were compromised and he was “at risk,” according to his daughter.

“Keeping our faith and trusting in God’s plan has led us to peace even with this outcome. If you have a loved one suffering from this virus right now, feel free to reach out. The pain is real,” she said in the post. “Please don’t let this heighten any fears you may have of the virus. I know this is scary, but I also know that God does not give us the spirit of fear.”

The man tested positive for the virus on Saturday, Dunn said. He was home before going to the hospital and was seen by a provider prior to hospitalization, where he was swabbed for COVID-19. Dunn did not say how long he was symptomatic before he was tested.

Health officials are working to contact anyone who may have been in close contact with the man before he tested positive for the illness.

The staff at the hospital did a good job taking care of the man, partly due to the family, said Dr. Mike Baumann, chief medical officer for Mountainstar Healthcare. Relatives called ahead before taking him to the hospital, allowing workers to take protective measures, he said.

Gov. Gary Herbert responded to news of the death.

“The pain this family must be feeling right now puts into perspective the sacrifices we are all making to keep one another safe and healthy. We encourage everyone to do their part by practicing safe health practices, including social distancing,” Herbert said in a statement.

Most of us have parents or grandparents of that age who we love, Supiano said in an interview with the Deseret News, “and in that sense I think it does hit closer to home.”

The professor said she hopes those who haven’t yet will be prompted to take the virus more seriously, and take the measures to practice physical distancing rather than social isolation, “because we do want people to make concerted efforts to stay socially active and socially engaged” while keeping physical distance from others.

That can include coaching grandparents from a distance on using technology to help them stay connected.

Residents have also for now lost the ability to “grieve collectively” — a cultural traditional that is comforting for many during funerals. While unable to grieve together in person, Supiano encourages Utahns to turn to writing letters of condolence and notes on mortuary condolence pages as a way to offer their support to both neighbors and strangers dealing with loss.

And although increased precautions are necessary, she said, it’s also important not to panic. Panicking such as hoarding doesn’t help public health. The more productive response to the pandemic is being more gracious, kind and charitable to each other, Supiano said.

It’s “a call to all of us to be part of community,” she said.

In light of Utah’s first COVID-19 death, state health officials again urged all Utahns to closely follow social distancing orders.

“If you haven’t been taking these recommendations seriously before now, it is time to start doing so. Please avoid being in groups greater than 10 people, and if you can’t avoid that, make sure you’re at least 6 feet away from anyone,” Dunn said.

Other steps recommended by health officials:

• If exhibiting any symptom of illness consistent with COVID-19, do not attend any physical social event or gathering. Call into a health care center first before going in for testing.

• Anyone with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 must self-isolate for at least seven days and 72 hours after the symptoms resolve.

• If someone has tested positive for COVID-19, each member of their household should self-isolate.

• Anyone over the age of 60 or who is immunocompromised should avoid contact with any other person except to receive critical assistance.

• Everyone should avoid discretionary travel, visiting gyms, shopping trips (other than shopping for food and other essentials), and social visits.

As the capacity to test patients in the state is increasing, Dunn said community spread is expected to continue growing.

“We are in this for the long haul,” she said, adding that we can expect more cases within the next several weeks “if not months.”

The total number of tests performed hit 3,689, up from Saturday’s test count of 2,560.

About 4.9% of those tested for the virus have tested positive — still below rates seen in other areas of outbreak. Last week, that rate was about 5.5% in the Beehive State.

Luz Escamilla speaks during a debate with other Salt Lake City mayoral candidates in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 15, 2019. The debate was broadcast live from KSL-TV studios.
Luz Escamilla speaks as she and other Salt Lake City mayoral candidates attend a debate at KSL broadcast house in Salt Lake City on Monday, July 15, 2019. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

About 10% of those with the virus in Utah have needed hospitalization, Dunn said.

State Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, announced Sunday night she tested positive for the virus and her family is quarantined.

“As someone who has asthma, this is a scary diagnosis, but I am confident that I will make a full recovery,” Escamilla said, adding in a statement a plea for residents to take the virus seriously.

Southern Utah saw its first case diagnosed in-state in a Washington County adult believed to have contracted the virus during travel, according to the Southwest Utah Health Department. The first patient, a St. George man, tested positive for the virus out of state and has since returned home to self-isolate.

A breakdown of Utah cases by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 80 residents, 4 nonresidents
  • Summit County, 43 residents, 7 nonresidents
  • Davis County, 19 residents
  • Weber-Morgan, 6 residents
  • Utah County, 6 residents, 1 nonresident
  • Southwest Utah, 2 residents
  • Wasatch County, 8 residents
  • Tooele County, 3 residents
  • Bear River Health Department, 3 residents