SALT LAKE CITY — While state officials expressed hope at just a slight increase in COVID-19 cases statewide, the increases in Summit County prompted local officials there to take drastic action.
Summit County’s cases have almost doubled (50 to 97) in the last three days. That was enough to convince the Summit County Council, county manager and health director to issue an order requiring all residents to stay at home and abandon any nonessential travel until May 1.
“This decision was not made lightly but is in the best interest of public health in Summit County,” said Dr. Rich Bullough, Summit County health director. “When you look at the data, Summit County is a hot spot for COVID-19 statewide, nationally and globally. At this time, Summit County has 20 times the number of cases per capita as Salt Lake County. Our cases per capita rival those of the worst areas of New York City and many parts of Italy.”
The governor’s office said Summit County officials contacted them to let them know they felt they needed to issue the order if they hope to get a handle on the outbreak.
“We were notified of Summit County’s decision this afternoon,” said the governor’s spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt. “Given the infection rate in that area of the state, we understand and support their decision to issue this order at this time.”
Summit County officials asked those with “secondary homes” to stay away and any tourists not to travel to the county until after May 1. The current order allows residents to patronize grocery stores, gas stations, hardware stores, banks, post offices and health care facilities. All of those — along with farming, restaurants and essential transportation services — are considered essential.
“Our county government is working to support essential services and the COVID-19 response in our community while complying with these orders,” County Manager Tom Fisher said in a news release. “These orders are a necessary step to protect our population now and in the future.”
The Summit County order, which will be reviewed in 14 days and could be modified at that time, comes the same day the state epidemiologist offered some hope when it comes to interpreting Utah’s confirmed case numbers.
On Wednesday, Utah reported 48 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, which brings the total confirmed cases to 346 statewide, according to the Utah Department of Health. Later in the day, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department announced two additional cases, pushing the total to 348.
Summit County reported just seven new cases, but its numbers jumped from 50 to 97 between Sunday and Wednesday.
With fewer new cases than neighboring states, Utahns may wonder why they can’t return to some semblance of normal life. State officials said they understand the difficulties, even as the days stretch into weeks and people forgo graduations, weddings and weekly church services.
Every missed concert or postponed athletic event serves a purpose, officials said in their daily press conference.
“The thing we really need to do as Utahns is ensure that we don’t overwhelm our health care systems,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist for the Utah Department of Health. “In every state and country where that happens, cases go off like wildfires. So we are doing everything we possibly can to keep our case count low, so our health care providers are safely able to care for everybody who comes in for emergency services.”
Dunn understands the anxiety and restlessness people feel as days turn into weeks.
“It’s temporary,” she said, “but it will last several few weeks, if not a few months, and that is going to ensure our health care providers stay safe and healthy. That’s what keeps me up at night.”
More than 6,800 people have been tested so far, and Utah experienced its first coronavirus death on Sunday.
But there was good news, despite the increase: Those sacrifices may be paying dividends already.
“We still only had about 5% of those who were tested are actually testing positive,” Dunn said during the daily press briefing Wednesday afternoon. “So that gives us a really good idea of the spread — or lack of the spread — and widespread transmission of COVID-19 in Utah. States that have widespread transmission are seeing much higher positive rates in their pool of testing. And so I think we can be confident that we are bending the curve here in Utah with our social distancing measures and protecting the health of Utahns because we are seeing those low positive rates.”
Dunn said the guidelines about who can be tested have been significantly relaxed because of an increased capacity to test in Utah, and they’re hoping to test 2,600 people per day in the near future. More comprehensive testing will give a better picture of what measures are working and what might need to change.
“We are encouraging that anybody who does have symptoms consistent with COVID — fever, cough, shortness of breath — that they call their provider, or use telehealth and go ahead and get tested,” Dunn said. “We have that capacity now in the state and encourage people to seek that out.”
Utah’s largest jump has been from Sunday to Monday in which 76 new cases were confirmed. There were 41 new cases Tuesday and 46 Wednesday. By comparison, Colorado has 912 cases as of Tuesday and it has tested 7,701 people. That means despite testing slightly more than 1,000 people, Colorado has nearly three times the positive cases.
In Idaho, 1,887 people have been tested with 91 cases confirmed. On Wednesday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a statewide stay-at-home order that will be in effect for 21 days. The order means Idaho’s 1.75 million residents must stay in their homes unless they are health care workers, public safety employees or other essential workers, including grocery store employees.
In Nevada, 4,232 people have been tested as of Wednesday and there are 285 confirmed cases. So what conclusions can be drawn from these comparisons?
“It means that our social distancing measures are working,” Dunn said. “So we encourage all Utahns to continue being vigilant, in terms of staying in small groups, staying home, especially for vulnerable, and only leaving the house for critical services.”
Utah’s numbers hold promise, even as government officials grapple with how to balance the call for even more restrictions with a push to ease closures and quarantines. Among those calling for returning to some semblance of normal is President Donald Trump. Some business leaders joined him in advocating for an end to shutdowns, cancellations and quarantines in the next two weeks, while medical professionals and many state governors advocate for the opposite.
On Wednesday, the Utah Academy of Family Physicians called on state and local leaders to issue stay-at-home orders for every community to slow the spread of COVID-19 cases. The group, which represents more than 1,100 medical personnel, asked for the orders to be issued immediately because the virus spreads rapidly, in part because so many who get sick have mild or no symptoms.
“We are gravely concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the public and on practicing family physicians providing primary care in Utah,” the group’s statement said. “We need to take these steps now to keep our health care system from breaking down under the strain of the coming surge. ... Urgent action is required if we are to keep primary care workforce protected and healthy enough to respond to this pandemic.”
Dunn repeatedly encouraged anyone with symptoms to get tested, as the state hasn’t come close to maximizing testing capabilities thanks to new availability at the University of Utah’s ARUP Laboratories.
“This will allow us to test more individuals with those symptoms who many now get this testing regardless of their travel or contact history,” said Michael Good, CEO and senior vice president of University of Utah Health Sciences, in a tweet Monday.
ARUP labs can process 1,500 tests per day with a goal of processing 3,000 per day if it can continue to keep supply chains open. People are still asked to call ahead to ensure testing is available. All hotline and provider information is available at coronavirus.utah.gov.
Dunn also announced that the State Department of Health is collecting medical grade items like masks, gowns, gloves and face shields from any group willing to donate them at coronavirus.utah.gov. While there are currently enough to serve the needs, she said the department wants to be prepared for any spikes and will distribute them to local health authorities as needed. Currently the State Health Department is only taking medical grade donations, not any homemade masks or equipment.
Also Wednesday, Herbert issued an order making it easier for medical providers to offer health services via technology by temporarily allowing providers to offer less secure telehealth services, so long as they inform patients of that fact and allow them to opt out.
“While we applaud health systems that have already expanded to offer telehealth services that provide the highest levels of privacy, we don’t want to stop health providers new to offering telehealth from innovating and using video conferencing programs that are readily available to them,” Herbert said. “The more opportunities we can create for patients to consult with their medical providers remotely, the more we can prevent the risk of spreading COVID-19 in our clinics and health care centers.”
Summit County said residents are not banned from going outside to hike, bike or run, but they asked people to observe social distancing rules — staying six feet apart — when they do so. If it’s not possible to keep that space between themselves and other people, they should avoid those areas, county officials said.
“The County Council asks all residents to comply with this order to the fullest,” Summit County Council Chair Doug Clyde said. “You are the front line in this fight against COVID-19. We expect our hospitals to reach capacity and need the cooperation of every resident to ensure we do not overwhelm our local health care system. The actions of individuals will determine the course of this virus in our community.”
Speaking on air to KSL Newsradio’s Jeff Caplan on Wednesday night, Bullough said part of trying to remain healthy is finding ways to deal with the monotony of isolation. He encouraged people to get outside, “feel the sunshine,” even if that just means driving through Summit County’s picturesque backroads.
“Yes, you can drive to work,” he said of those who must commute to or from Salt Lake or other counties. “More and more there are opportunities to telecommute. We strongly advise businesses out there ... they should be focusing on telecommuting.”
Bullough said county officials are trying to take swift action so they don’t have more dire issues down the road. Enforcement could include police action, as it’s a Class B misdemeanor to violate the order. Bullough said individuals or organizations “that are intentionally violating this order” or those about whom officials get “repeated complaints” will be the focus of police action and prosecution.
“People need to understand that we are operating under the assumption that we’ve all been exposed,” he said, “and we’re all potential carriers.”
A breakdown of the Utah COVID-19 cases by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 151 residents, 3 nonresidents
- Summit County, 89 residents, 8 nonresidents
- Davis County, 35 residents
- Weber-Morgan, 10 residents
- Utah County, 18 residents, 1 nonresident
- Southwest Utah, 7 residents, 1 nonresident
- Wasatch County, 15 residents, 1 nonresident
- Tooele County, 3 residents
- Bear River Health Department, 6 residents