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Utah investigating when COVID-19 actually entered state

Autopsies found COVID-19 deaths in California 2 weeks before first U.S. death was reported

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University of Utah Hospital staff clap and wave as firetrucks circle through the entrance of the Salt Lake City hospital during a first responder vehicle parade to honor health care workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic aon Monday, April 27, 2020. Firetrucks, ambulances and police vehicles flashed emergency lights and sounded their sirens as they drove past the hospital.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After autopsies discovered that COVID-19 deaths occurred in California two weeks before the first death was reported in the country in late February, Utah health officials say they’re investigating when the Beehive State actually saw its first cases.

“We’re going to be working with hospital systems, and Intermountain (Healthcare) is already doing this by going back in time and looking at those people who tested negative for influenza and retesting their samples for COVID-19 or reaching out to those individuals to get an antibody test so we can identify more accurately when it did come into Utah and what the spread has been,” Dr. Angela Dunn, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said Monday.

Many residents have said they believe they likely had the virus as early as February, when testing wasn’t widespread or available to those who hadn’t traveled to countries with outbreaks.

The first case in Utah was reported on March 6, a Davis County resident who had recently returned home from a cruise. But the California report has further fueled speculation about when the spread through interstate travel and community transmission began occurring in Utah.

Meanwhile, the state is now capable of testing up to 9,000 people daily, but despite the expanded criteria, has been seeing demand under capacity with an average of 4,000 to 6,000 people getting tested daily.

Jeff Lund, a Salt Lake area resident, said an illness he experienced several weeks ago felt different than a usual cold, but he hadn’t traveled outside of Utah and didn’t have all three symptoms required to receive testing. His wife was referred to get testing, but she tested negative.

“I think a lot of us have kind of had whatever it was, and it’s passed and now we feel OK, and so there’s no reason to go get tested,” Lund said.

But he said he would be interested in receiving antibody testing when it becomes available to learn if he had the virus.

Utah’s tally

Salt Lake County reported one additional death in someone who had COVID-19, bringing the county’s total to 25 and the state’s to 42. The fatality wasn’t included in the state health department’s early afternoon tally update. Further information about the death wasn’t immediately available.

Utah saw a smaller rise in cases on Sunday than over the previous few days as 110 additional people tested positive for the disease, bringing the total to 4,233.

Sunday marked the first day in 12 days that no COVID-19 deaths had been reported in the state.

Utah’s testing numbers also surpassed 100,000 on Monday, with about 4,500 new tests performed. The positive rate stands at just over 4.2% out of the 100,195 people tested.

About 3% of the population has now been tested.

Also on Monday, the Southeast Utah Health Department announced a new public health order allowing indoor and outdoor dining with 6 feet between tables in Grand, Emery and Carbon counties. The order also removes lodging restrictions for Carbon and Emery counties, and allows Grand County hotels to reopen with some restrictions.

As social distancing measures are expected to be loosened in the coming days, Dunn said health officials are ramping up contact-tracing efforts. While they have typically contacted those who came into close contact with confirmed cases two days before symptom onset, health officials are expanding their outreach to those who came into close contact with a case seven days before symptom onset.

“This is going to allow us to identify more individuals with the likelihood of having COVID-19, test them for COVID-19, and recommend them for isolation if necessary,” Dunn said.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added six new symptoms to its list of symptoms associated with COVID-19. They include chills, repeated shaking with chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell.

The symptoms originally associated with the disease were coughing, fever and shortness of breath.

About two weeks ago, Utah health officials expanded testing criteria — which first included just those three well-known symptoms — to allow anyone with at least one or more symptoms including muscle aches and pains, a decreased sense of taste or smell, or a sore throat.

Malaria medication purchase

Last week, it came to light that the Utah Division of Purchasing and General Services bought 20,000 medication packs of chloroquine, zinc and hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment that was being investigated as a treatment for COVID-19, for $800,000, unbeknownst to the Utah Department of Health. The FDA cautioned last week against using the drug to treat the new coronavirus.

Gov. Gary Herbert said there will be a review of the incident.

Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah governor and current gubernatorial candidate, on Monday tweeted calling for an independent investigation into the purchase.

The Utah Pharmacy Association and Utah Society of Health-System Pharmacists issued a joint statement about the medication, urging caution in its use.

“Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are associated with serious adverse effects (i.e. fatal heart rhythms) that have the potential to actually cause harm. Thus, they should be prescribed with extreme precaution and careful monitoring by the multidisciplinary healthcare team,” the groups said.

A breakdown of Utah COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 2,190; 196 hospitalized; 25 deaths.
  • Utah County, 828; 42 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Summit County, 358; 32 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Davis County, 276; 23 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 147; 18 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 140; 7 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • Southwest Utah, 89; 9 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Bear River, 60; 10 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • Tooele County, 56; 5 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 45; 5 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 22; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 11; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 11; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.