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Southern Utah counties seek OK to move to yellow or low risk level

Mobile testing unit dispatched to Utah County to address spike in COVID-19 cases

Ruby Van Wagenen, 11, is held by her mother as she is tested for COVID-19 by medical assistant Nicole Paepke at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo on Friday, May 8, 2020. In an effort to help address COVID-19 hot spots that have been identified in Utah County, the Intermountain Healthcare Coronavirus Mobile Testing Unit provided testing to area residents.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

ST. GEORGE — While many communities in Utah remain relatively quiet as residents continue their quarantine with some relaxed restrictions, St. George and other areas of southern Utah this week saw crowded roads and busy restaurants.

Recreational areas like Sand Hollow and Gunlock reservoirs, meanwhile, have even needed to cap visitors due to overcrowding.

That’s one reason why St. George, along with some of its neighbors, are pleading with the state to let them move down from the orange, or moderate risk level, to yellow, or low risk level.

“It really is more reflective of our reality. Under orange status, you’re supposed to be doing only essential travel. I don’t know if we’ve all looked around, but there’s a lot more than essential travel going on in our area,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said Friday.

“Many people coming from outside the area and the state, even, to visit, as we know. And we’ve been a little concerned about that, but the state doesn’t plan to restrict (travel) at this point.”

Yet other areas of the state, including Utah County, are continuing to see surges in confirmed COVID-19 cases. That prompted mobile testing units to be deployed to Provo Friday to help stem the spread.

When announcing Utah would move to the orange level last week, Gov. Gary Herbert said city and county officials would be able to work with the state health department if they wish to loosen restrictions or introduce more severe restrictions.

Washington, Kane and Iron counties have resubmitted a new joint request to the Utah Department of Health to move the risk level to yellow after their original request earlier this week was rejected by the state, Pike said.

With 138 cases confirmed in the entire Southwest Utah health district — which includes Washington, Kane, Iron, Garfield and Beaver counties — officials say the numbers back up their appeal for loosening restrictions. Just three people in the health district are currently hospitalized with the virus, according to health department data.

“We wanted clear metrics that could be evaluated by data points, as opposed to decision-making based on emotion, which is never a good idea,” Maj. Jefferson Burton, acting director of the Utah Department of Health, told the St. George City Council on Thursday.

“We made it clear that counties can have different postures based on meeting the criteria for that. ... And so we are poring over the data, and it looks like you qualify,” Burton said.

Pike said Friday he felt optimistic the new request would get accepted and was waiting on a call from the governor’s office. A spokesman for Pike’s office said late Friday afternoon that the area’s transmission rate was higher than it needs to be to move to the yellow level, and state officials are waiting until Monday at the earliest to decide whether to approve the request.

If the counties’ request gets accepted, they will become the first in the state to officially move to a low risk level. One of the largest changes would be allowing for gatherings of up to 50 people instead of 20, Pike said.

“And that could be very helpful, I believe, as it relates to obviously gatherings, meetings and restaurants. I don’t know yet, we’ll work with our local health department ... to see exactly what that looks like,” Pike said.

Under the Utah Leads Together 2.0 plan, the low risk level also allows schools and all businesses to reopen and removes the directive urging residents to “leave home infrequently.”

Officials are taking cautions at resorts and reservoirs to cap the numbers of visitors, but they “don’t plan to deny people entry (to cities) other than the capacity issue,” Pike said.

Under the potential lowered risk level, Pike said continued social distancing, face masks in certain businesses and sanitation measures will be needed. Officials will then focus on high-risk groups in case of a future surge in cases, he said.

Local officials have sought to protect those in the homeless community by repurposing an out-of-use hotel owned by the city as a quarantine and isolation facility for those who enter St. George or who test positive at Switchpoint, the city’s homeless shelter, according to Carol Hollowell, Switchpoint executive director.

The shelter has worked closely with Intermountain Healthcare and city officials to identify potential cases in the homeless community, Hollowell told the Deseret News. When a homeless individual enters the city, they are required to isolate in the hotel for two weeks.

The measures were implemented as soon as the first cases hit Utah, she said. Seven people experiencing homelessness in St. George have tested positive since the outbreak began — three have since recovered and four in a single family are currently in isolation. Other cases remain under investigation.

While the 84-bed shelter is usually near capacity, according to its executive director, about 32 of the residents moved into a local motel at an affordable rate at the beginning of the outbreak to improve physical distancing abilities.

Though case numbers have been relatively low — by comparison, Salt Lake County has seen at least 100 cases in its homeless community — “it’s a strain for us to take on another shelter financially,” Hollowell said.

But should the area move to the low-risk level, Hollowell said the same isolation measures will continue in the homeless community.

Pike remains optimistic, despite the influx of tourists, that the southern Utah area will be ready should a surge occur.

“We know we’re not immune to that, but the numbers don’t lie. They’ve shown us pretty flat, and pretty low. And so our hospital’s ready, we’ve bought time,” the mayor said.

Utah County testing

Intermountain Healthcare on Friday deployed its mobile testing unit to Utah Valley Hospital in Provo to help address Utah County hot spots. As of Friday, Provo had the highest number of confirmed cases, with at least 297 of the county’s 1,284, according to data from the Utah County Health Department. Orem, the second largest city in the county, follows closely behind.

And while many counties have seen declines in cases, Utah County is seeing a steady uptick, with more than a 20% rise in cases within the last week.

“Over the weekend, end of last week, first of this week, we saw a spike in test numbers here in Utah County, particularly in the ZIP codes that we’re testing today. So we’re coming down to do mass testing, so to speak, to find out what’s happening in this community to help them get the care they need,” Intermountain Healthcare’s Teri Adams said as workers wearing face masks bustled around the site.

Currently, there is just one permanent testing site in Provo managed by TestUtah.

The mobile testing unit was focusing on those from ZIP codes in Provo and Orem, including 84606, 84601 and 84057, Adams said. Those areas had seen both an increase in people wanting to get tested, as well as in confirmed coronavirus cases.

“We’re hoping to have 1,000 people come out and get tested, and we can help them,” she said, adding that anyone in those ZIP codes — even those without symptoms — are able to get tested.

State numbers

The Beehive State saw an increase of 195 COVID-19 cases on Friday but no new deaths were reported.

Positive cases rose to 5,919 out of 138,688 tested. The rate of positives hovers just under 4.3%, according to the Utah Department of Health. About 4.3% of the population, meanwhile, has now been tested for the disease.

Most of the 61 people who have died in Utah with the coronavirus have been older adults with underlying health conditions. Many were residents in long-term care facilities.

Just under half of those who tested positive for the virus are now considered recovered after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.

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

  • Salt Lake County, 3,104; 280 hospitalized; 39 deaths
  • Utah County, 1,288; 71 hospitalized; 11 deaths
  • Summit County, 384; 33 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Davis County, 321; 27 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Weber-Morgan, 184; 23 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Wasatch County, 173; 7 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Southwest Utah, 138; 13 hospitalized; 3 deaths
  • San Juan County, 135; 14 hospitalized; 2 deaths
  • Tooele County, 72; 6 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Bear River, 66; 11 hospitalized; 1 death
  • Central Utah, 27; 2 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • Southeast Utah, 13; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 14; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths