SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced new efforts on Wednesday “to protect the people of Utah and slow the spread of coronavirus in the state” by closely monitoring its borders as well as passengers who fly into Salt Lake City International Airport.

The Utah Department of Transportation has identified nine main roads entering the state that will be monitored using technology to send a text message to anyone crossing into Utah, directing them to register their name, contact information and health status. The same process will be conducted at the airport for anyone whose final destination is in Utah.

“Utah data on COVID-19 shows that the measures we’ve put in place to stay safe and stay home are working,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, calling the order “a crucial next step” in protecting Utahns. “Now isn’t the time for us to let off the gas.”

Herbert’s executive order requiring travelers from outside the state to register will go into effect on Friday.

Utah Department of Transportation Director Carlos Braceras said during Wednesday’s press conference the border surveillance efforts are to further inform and provide data for the state health department to fight the spread of disease. They’re not planning to enforce out-of-state registration, or “chase down cars” that don’t comply, but can and will do so if it becomes necessary.

“I’ve found, in Utah, that when people know the right thing to do, they do the right thing,” Braceras said.

Mendenhall said the airport is also awaiting no-touch temperature sensors as another way to monitor any people who are sick coming into the state.

Testing possible drug treatments

The number of confirmed cases in Utah rose to 1,846 on Wednesday, as reported by the Utah Department of Health. The agency also reports 158 patients needed hospitalization in Utah and 13 people have died with COVID-19.

The state has tested more than 36,116 people.

Utah Department of Health

Testing availability has been “a limitation” in the state, just like most places around the globe, said Dr. Raj Srivastava, assistant vice president of research at Intermountain Healthcare. Srivastava and his colleagues at Intermountain and at University of Utah Health announced Wednesday they are working on parallel studies regarding potential treatment for COVID-19.

U. Health and Intermountain have launched the two clinical trials to test the effectiveness of two commonly prescribed medications that have indications they might work for the symptoms of COVID-19.

The possible treatments include hydroxychloroquine, which is typically used to treat malaria and some autoimmune diseases; and azithromycin, which is an antibiotic used for sinus infections or pneumonia. No one really knows whether they work for coronavirus, Srivastava said.

Dr. Sam Brown, a critical care researcher at Intermountain Healthcare, said the goal is “to make people better,” but how quickly they get results depends on the state’s response to aggressive social distancing measures and how many people get infected.

“We’re praying we don’t have answers in a month,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we have thousands of Utahns being managed in sports arenas on makeshift ventilators.

“If we’re able to keep Utah relatively safe through aggressive physical distancing ... it may take longer to get the answers,” Brown said. “And that’s OK, because it means fewer people are sick.”

The two health systems plan to enroll 2,300 patients within the next several months who have a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis or are suspected of having the virus.

“Results from these studies will help us to understand the value of hydroxychloroquine in treatment of COVID-19 as we seek ways to fight the virus effectively and reduce the human cost of this pandemic,” Brown said.

Like all drugs, the two being studied can have adverse side effects, including heart problems, which is why it is necessary to be studied in a safe environment, the researchers emphasized.

“We know there are downsides to this medicine, what we don’t know is whether it has any benefit,” said Dr. Adam Spivak, an infectious disease physician at the U. “We need to fight back against the idea that it is a miracle cure when really, there’s a vacuum here. We don’t know.”

Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease specialist and investigator at Intermountain, said there is worldwide interest in the drugs being studied in Utah, as only clinical trials involving a high number of patients and participants will lead to answers.

“This is what we do in Utah,” said Dr. Rachel Hess, principal investigator of the outpatient trial and co-director for the Center for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Utah. She said agencies and institutions are looking to Utah for information.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said the state is testing 5,000 people every day, is practicing social distancing and is continuing contact tracing to identify people at higher risk of getting COVID-19. Local health systems conducting research on possible treatments is a key next step.

“This is exactly what we need to be doing to solve this pandemic,” Dunn said during Wednesday’s press briefing.

State response earns praise

The state’s response to coronavirus, including closing schools and nonessential businesses and restaurants, Herbert said, happened sooner than in other states and is more efficient.

“We’ve developed the most comprehensive plan of any state in the nation,” he said.

The governor tweeted earlier on Wednesday that a visit with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was productive as he shared what Utah is doing to flatten the curve of COVID-19 infection in the state.

His “stay safe, stay home” directive has closed nonessential businesses and orders all residents to stay home except for necessary trips to grocery stores, pharmacies and work for essential employees, but also to pick up takeout at local eateries.

The directive stops short of lockdown measures, which some county officials have turned to without Herbert’s blessing.

Overall, though, Utah officials have been less aggressive than those in more than half of the United States in tackling the worldwide pandemic.

Herbert emphasized his previously announced ban on unnecessary travel, even within the state, and encouraged Utahns to stay close to home throughout the upcoming holiday weekend. He said that the spread of coronavirus will only slow if everyone believes they are “part of the solution and not the problem.”

“It only works if we all do it and obey the rules put in place,” he said.

Dunn refrained from forecasting a peak to the illness locally, as well as predicting when restrictions might be lifted, saying “pandemics come in waves” and little is known about the current viral strain. She did say, however, that it could happen in “late summer.”

Is air pollution making cases worse?

On another front, a group of physicians in Utah are saying local pollution levels can make it worse.

“A brand new study from Harvard University directly confirms exactly what Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment has been saying; air pollution significantly increases the risk of a fatal outcome from the coronavirus,” said Dr. Brian Moench, founder and president of the environmental nonprofit group.

The study shows that living in a city with just a millionth of a gram per cubic meter of PM2.5 increases a person’s risk of dying from a coronavirus infection by 15%. Pollution levels along the Wasatch Front average 8 to 9 micrograms of PM2.5 (with winter spikes up to 50 to 70), Moench said.

“That means that Wasatch Front air pollution more than doubles the risk of death from the coronavirus,” he added.

The Harvard study states that the majority of the preexisting conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution. It’s authors concluded that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate” in the U.S.

Moench has always maintained air pollution can cause and aggravate disease and, he said, the Harvard study confirms it, particularly as it relates to COVID-19.

The latest breakdown of Utah COVID-19 cases by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 858; 78 hospitalized
  • Summit County, 273; 21 hospitalized
  • Utah County, 267; 17 hospitalized
  • Davis County, 163; 14 hospitalized
  • Wasatch County, 82; 4 hospitalized
  • Weber-Morgan, 77; 6 hospitalized
  • Southwest Utah, 43; 7 hospitalized
  • Bear River, 39; 6 hospitalized
  • Tooele County, 23; 2 hospitalized
  • San Juan County, 6; 2 hospitalized
  • Central Utah, 5; 1 hospitalized
  • Southeast Utah, 4; 0 hospitalized
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 6; 0 hospitalized