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Virus takes aim at west side of Salt Lake City, County

State’s top demographers predict short- and long-term effects of the coronavirus on the Beehive State

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Health care workers test people for COVID-19 at a temporary testing site at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 9, 2020. Saturday’s testing event was the first in a series aimed at providing testing to Utah’s underserved communities.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — There was a common thread among the most ill patients at Salt Lake City’s University of Utah Hospital last week.

Many shared the same DNA and a home address on the west side of Salt Lake County.

“In our ICU this past week, we had 20 different patients. And of those, a significant number were from three distinct families,” said Brian Shiozawa, an executive with the University of Utah’s health care system.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has made a “west-side shift” in recent weeks, moving away from the upscale suburbs and resort towns tucked into the mountains of Summit and Salt Lake counties, Shiozawa said. The virus has migrated instead to diverse neighborhoods in Salt Lake County, home to multigenerational households and fewer advantages to combat its spread.

Statewide, of every 100 Utahns tested, about 5 are found to have the virus. But at the University of Utah Health’s Redwood Clinic on the border of Salt Lake and West Valley cities, up to 20% are testing positive, Shiozawa told the Deseret News.

He joined the state’s top demographics experts Wednesday for a discussion via video conference on the impact of the virus across Utah. Panelists noted it has devastated the Navajo reservation that spills into southwestern Utah, one of the nation’s hardest-hit areas.

Utah’s minority communities are falling ill at higher rates, mirroring a national trend. For example, Hispanic Utahns make up just 14% of the state’s population but account for 38% of cases, according to the Utah Department of Health.

On Wednesday, population experts with the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute forecast the longer-term effects of the virus, from an anticipated dip in births amid financial uncertainty to a potential influx of newcomers if the Beehive State’s economy recovers faster than others.

The virus is sure to affect the pending census count, noted Pamela Perlich, the director of demographic research, as the state’s college towns have emptied and thousands of Latter-day Saint missionaries have returned home.

Many neighborhoods that have been undercounted in the past — home to immigrant families who may be fearful of sharing information with the federal government — are the very same communities grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, Perlich said.

“When you layer on top of that that these are the most fragile of households, these are the most in danger of losing home or losing employment — and some may not have legal status or have somebody in the family who doesn’t have legal status — that just layers on the possibility that those hard to count groups are now even harder to count,” Perlich said.

It means efforts to curb the virus and invite participation in the census must be strategic and customized down to a neighborhood level, she added.

In Salt Lake City, the Jordan Meadows, Rose Park, Poplar Grove and Glendale neighborhoods are grappling with some of the highest rates of the virus statewide, said Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall. Those communities fall in the two ZIP codes with the highest rates in the county as of Wednesday.

While the exact reason for the surge there isn’t yet known, she said there’s a constellation of factors that make the communities more vulnerable. The city has begun recording its public service announcements in 10 languages in order to head off further infection.

“We know we have a lot of front-line workers in these communities, people who don’t have the option, necessarily, of telecommuting and don’t have the option, economically, of not going to work,” Mendenhall said.

Shiozawa, the U. health system’s associate vice president for health policy, agreed.

“Let’s say someone acquires COVID at work and then goes home at night. They have one or two bathrooms and several people occupying the bedrooms. Gosh, you know, that person coughing and then just eating and being with the family, you can see how that disease spreads,” he said.

With that scenario in mind, state Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and five other Utah lawmakers who are ethnic or racial minorities teamed up with health organizations to set up a series of testing clinics and dispatch a network of “cultural brokers” to different hot-spot communities.

Escamilla, whose district includes the hard-hit areas on the west side of the county, told the Deseret News the initiative will deploy more than 20 community health workers in coming days, helping families connect not just to health care but to food, rental assistance or other resources they may need.

“These are the high-risk, highly impacted communities that need interventions that actually work,” Escamilla said. “We feel this could really provide measurable outcomes.”

Escamilla fell sick with COVID-19 nearly two months ago — along with her husband and young daughter — and still has some lingering symptoms she suspects are tied to her asthma, she said.

“It’s devastating, it’s exhausting, it’s painful,” Escamilla said of the illness. “I can’t picture myself feeling that way and thinking that I couldn’t feed my family or that I was not going to have a place to stay a week from now.”

Contributing: Maria Shilaos