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Expert says end of COVID crisis requires herd immunity in Utah

2 more deaths reported in Beehive State as well as a 2.9% rise in number of positive cases

Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.
Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s top coronavirus expert says herd immunity is the only way the current coronavirus crisis will end in Utah.

“We’re not going to be able to prevent disease effectively until 60% to 80% of the population is immune to COVID-19,” Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said during Wednesday’s briefing at the state Capitol. “They either get infected or they get a vaccine.”

Herd immunity, though, she said, is “far away.”

“We are looking toward that vaccine to provide stability in our ability to respond to COVID-19,” Dunn said.

Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, waits to speak during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.
Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, waits to speak during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 13, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Dunn said that while Utah has a smaller number of older people — who have been determined to have a greater risk of complications from the illness — “from a public health perspective, we never want to put lives at risk unnecessarily for the sake of multiple people getting back to normal.”

“Those at high risk for severe disease are going to have to be really vigilant until we get that vaccine,” she said.

The Utah Department of Health reported on Wednesday an additional 188 cases of COVID-19 confirmed since Tuesday — a 2.9% growth rate — and that two more Utahns have died of the illness, bringing the state’s death toll to 75.

The agency noted that at least 156,786 people have been tested and 6,620 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed. As of Wednesday, 99 people were currently hospitalized, 18 more than the previous day.

The two additional deaths occurred in Salt Lake County and were males over age 65 who had been living in long-term care facilities. The county has now reported 51 fatalities related to the pandemic.

The numbers come as less-affected areas of the state are still requesting variances to Gov. Gary Herbert’s current public health order indicating the state is in a moderate risk category for the novel coronavirus. That order, as detailed in the state’s Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan, went into effect May 1 and will expire late Friday.

The TriCounty Board of Health, encompassing Uintah, Daggett and Duchesne counties, which has confirmed just 16 cases of COVID-19, one hospitalization and no deaths, voted Monday to move from the orange/moderate risk category to yellow or low-risk level, but such will require approval from the state level prior to implementation.

“It is the responsibility of every citizen in Uintah, Daggett and Duchesne counties to remain vigilant in following all the health and safety guideline as we move to the yellow phase of the Utah Leads Together plan,” said TriCounty Health officer Jordan Matthias. “Everyone’s actions are vital to ensure we can continue to move toward green, and don’t have to move back into orange.”

A yellow risk category still recommends that people wear masks and continue all sanitary precautions, but would allow all businesses to open, as well as schools in those areas, unless previous decisions on seasonal closures have already been made.

Counties in southwestern Utah have also made similar requests for a more swift economic recovery. And Zion National Park reopened its gates to the public with restriction in place on Wednesday.

Dunn said outbreaks are experienced differently in different places throughout the state, some even experiencing a decrease in cases while testing the same number of people. The state as a whole, however, she said, is not ready to make that transition. And that will largely depend on the actions of the public.

“What we’re asking Utahns to do is definitely hard,” Dunn said. “We are asking them to take measures that change our culture in order to prevent disease.”

Utah hasn’t been inundated with disease and people can still get the care they need, which, she said, can make it confusing for people.

But, Dunn said, “we’re not going to go back to ‘normal’ for some time.”

She said no model can predict the future of COVID-19 in Utah, or elsewhere, and because around just 5% have become infected so far here, it is important to maintain capacity and sustain the energy to manage it until a vaccine is available.

“We need to evaluate how we can still do the things we love and enjoy, just in a different way,” Dunn said.

Boost for telehealth services

The Federal Communications Commission announced nearly $800,000 in new grants for Intermountain Healthcare to extend its telehealth services and provide remote visits and consultations regarding coronavirus to more rural areas of the state, as well as in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona and Nevada.

Debbie Farka, marketing manager for Intermountain TeleHealth Services, demonstrates what a virtual visit with a doctor would be like at the Intermountain TeleHealth Center in Murray on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Intermountain Healthcare is expanding its TeleHealth and Connect Care Services to help combat COVID-19.
Debbie Farka, marketing manager for Intermountain TeleHealth Services, demonstrates what a virtual visit with a doctor would be like at the Intermountain TeleHealth Center in Murray on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Intermountain Healthcare is expanding its TeleHealth and Connect Care Services to help combat COVID-19.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

To date, the FCC’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program, which was authorized by the federal government’s CARES Act, has funded 82 health care providers in 30 states at a total of $33.26 million. Intermountain was awarded one of the largest sums of 33 applicants across the United States on Wednesday.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported that the TriCounty Health District recorded one COVID-19 death. The district has had one hospitalization but no deaths.

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 3,530; 315 hospitalized; 51 deaths
  • Utah County, 1,400; 85 hospitalized; 11 deaths
  • Summit County, 392; 34 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Davis County, 344; 29 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Weber-Morgan, 211; 28 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • Wasatch County, 185; 8 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Southwest Utah, 180; 15 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • San Juan County, 152; 18 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • Tooele County, 85; 6 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Bear River, 83; 12 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Central Utah, 29; 2 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 16; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Southeast Utah, 13; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths