‘We are in the acceleration phase,’ Utah’s top epidemiologist says after two weeks of rising COVID-19 cases
Legislators weigh loosening — or tightening — restrictions during interim committee meeting
SALT LAKE CITY — Though Utah moved to its low-risk in the pandemic in May, the state’s top epidemiologist offered a warning Tuesday during the state’s ongoing spike in cases: “We are in the acceleration phase in this outbreak.”
“We’ve seen consistent increases in our cases since May 28, and it’s really been a statewide happening of increase in cases,” Dr. Angela Dunn, with the Utah Department of Health, told a legislative committee Tuesday ahead of this week’s special session when legislation dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 will be weighed. She also said the state has not flattened the curve of infections.
The update spurred discussion among lawmakers on whether the state is moving too fast to reopen and others who worry about further damage to the economy because of restrictions on businesses. And the acting director of the state health department, Retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, warned that “we’re going to have a rough time going forward, and may have to back things off” if Utahns do not take precautions.
Before May 28, the state averaged 150 new cases per day. Since then, there has been an average of 300 per day being confirmed, Dunn said.
Utah will need to maintain its ability to contact trace every case of COVID-19 and continue to test everyone who needs it. But that is becoming increasingly difficult, according to Dunn.
When Utah was in its high-risk phase, each case had an average of three to five contacts who needed to be notified by health workers. Now, that number has risen to 20 to 30 as the economy has reopened, leading to more people returning to the workplace and socializing, Dunn said.
“So the amount of time it takes to do a complete case investigation has increased exponentially, and in order for us to really control this pandemic, we’re going to need that workforce to be able to do it,” Dunn told members of the Health and Human Services Interim Committee.
The fall will also bring new challenges as flu season starts.
“And so we really need to do everything we can right now to protect our health care capacity so that everyone can get the care they need, whether it’s COVID-19 related or not, in the fall,” Dunn said.
Flu vaccinations will become more important than ever to decrease strain on the system, according to the epidemiologist.
Opinions about what needs to happen now in the fight against COVID-19 appeared to be split along party lines among the legislative committee members.
Rep. Jen Dailey-Provost, D-Salt Lake City, expressed concern that “it sounds like the conversation is turning toward treating that increased need for capacity for contact tracing in response to spikes in infections as a foregone conclusion when we know that some of those are preventable.”
She said it appears the state has stopped talking about prevention as much and has instead turned to responding to infections.
“I think that that’s a mistake because it costs more to treat these diseases and to deal with the fallout than it does for prevention,” Dailey-Provost said.
Dunn said officials “know where COVID is spreading” and are working with areas at high risk, especially to vulnerable populations. Now, public health workers are targeting their efforts at work sites to put prevention measures in place.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he is “really troubled” by rising cases.
“We’ve talked for weeks, months now, about flattening the curve. I don’t see any flattening there, and it’s not your fault of course. But I guess what I’m saying is, we hear people talking about an uptick in the fall and my goodness, I’m seeing an uptick right now in a time frame when we’re supposed to be reopening safely,” King said, asking if Utah has successfully flattened its curve.
The state hasn’t flattened its curve, Dunn said, as there needs to be a 14-day plateau followed by a decline. But to counter the spread, contact tracing, testing and protecting health care capacity is needed, Dunn said, especially as restrictions continue to loosen.
“We definitely need to turn that around before the fall. Otherwise, we’re going to continue to see excess infections and preventable deaths,” Dunn said.
King questioned whether a “proper balance” has been struck between economic considerations and public health considerations.
“I think there’s no doubt about it that as we see an increase in cases that, no matter what color we’re at, that’s going to impact the economy. They’re linked together. And we in public health know acutely the impact of a poor economy on the health of populations, potentially for generations. The link between poverty and health is strong, and that’s something we try to prevent as well,” Dunn said.
Burton noted Utah lost $25 million per day to its economy while it remained in the high-risk phase.
“As we feel more pressure from counties and cities to open things up, and as frankly, we see our citizens just not wanting to participate in social distancing and mask wearing in some counties, I would just say the way we keep this under control is to be very judicious about how we open up but also, to encourage all those around us” to take measures to stop the spread,” Burton said.
“We have got to get our public on board in participating in those two things or we’re going to have a rough time going forward, and may have to back things off,” Burton said.
Despite rising cases, many residents want the state to move to its green phase, or new normal, in the pandemic, some legislators in the meeting pointed out.
“The rural counties, especially, just haven’t seen much at all,” said Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, asking whether the state could begin to allow some rural counties to move to the green level soon.
Dunn said that although case counts in those counties are “sparse,” the disease “doesn’t stop at the border,” which is a factor in that decision.
Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said he was concerned the state is heading for a “train wreck” into the fall as it tries to prevent people from getting the infection throughout the summer and questioned Utah’s true death toll from the virus.
He asked Dunn whether those considered deaths due to COVID-19 are counted as such because they tested positive for the disease — regardless of whether it actually caused their death — and asked for a comparison between COVID-19 and flu deaths.
“When we count a COVID-19 death, it’s because COVID-19 caused the death. If that individual didn’t have COVID-19, they would not have died,” Dunn said.
She said flu deaths are not required to be reported to health officials, unless they are pediatric patients, making flu death statistics unreliable. The fact that COVID-19 is a new disease also makes it “a different beast” than the flu, she said.
Ray said he’s worried about ongoing economic impacts to the state.
“How many more businesses are we going to drive out? How many more people are we going to put on the unemployment rolls and put in financial situations, when we really need to take a different look at how we’re doing this. I think that we need to be green. I think we should’ve been green a long time ago, and still protect the vulnerable,” Ray said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall appeared on MSNBC on Tuesday morning to discuss Utah and its capital city’s response to COVID-19, and how Salt Lake City remains in an “orange,” moderate-risk phase as other areas in Utah see a spike in new COVID-19 cases.
Asked about reports that Vice President Mike Pence encouraged governors to attribute those spikes to increased testing, Mendenhall said that’s obviously not the case in Utah, as daily health department updates show testing in Utah hasn’t increased, but daily COVID-19 cases have. She noted that that residents have “relaxed” mask wearing and social distancing, including at daily protests after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
“Whether or not you’re at a protest or you’re just going out to retail, restaurants, you see people are really relaxing, letting their guard down, putting their masks down, so it’s pretty obviously the culture around safety with COVID-19 is laxing around Salt Lake City,” she said.
On Tuesday, Utah health officials reported another 329 confirmed cases of COVID-19 Tuesday as well as two additional deaths in the state.
The new cases were confirmed as 2,762 people received tests, a nearly 12% positive rate. They bring the state’s total cases since the outbreak began to 14,937 out of 275,700 tested for an overall positive rate of about 5.4%, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The two latest deaths were Salt Lake County men, both between the ages of 60 and 85 and both were hospitalized when they died. One was a long-term care facility resident. They bring the state’s death toll from the novel coronavirus to 145.
“We expect that to increase with the increasing cases,” Dunn said. While hospital capacity remains adequate, in Salt Lake County resource use is beginning to approach capacity, she said.
In Utah, 32 additional patients required hospitalization for COVID-19 since Monday’s report. The current number of those in hospitals with the disease is now at 143, up five since the previous day.
Now, 8,470 people in Utah are considered recovered from the novel coronavirus after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 7,676; 606 hospitalized; 96 deaths.
- Utah County, 2,711; 142 hospitalized; 19 deaths.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,039; 35 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
- Southwest Utah, 855; 68 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
- Davis County, 691; 61 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
- Weber-Morgan, 539; 51 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
- Summit County, 448; 41 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- San Juan County, 365; 36 hospitalized; 6 deaths.
- Wasatch County, 356; 16 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
- Tooele County, 178; 11 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Central Utah, 79; 5 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Southeast Utah, 29; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 31; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
Contributing: Katie McKellar