SALT LAKE CITY — The same day nine rural counties in Utah moved to the green phase in the pandemic and entered the “new normal,” the state saw its largest daily rise of COVID-19 cases.

A total of 586 new confirmed cases were reported.

Just under 4,700 people were tested since Thursday’s report, of which there was a 12.5% positive rate, according to the Utah Department of Health.

“Utah’s case counts concern me. We are monitoring hospital capacity in our densely populated counties. Their risk status has not changed. #StayStrong Utah! Let’s continue to keep safe by wearing face coverings, keeping our distance and practicing excellent hygiene,” Gov. Gary Herbert tweeted Friday.

Thursday’s case count was also high, with 495 new reports of the novel coronavirus. The previous daily record occurred on June 6, when 546 cases were confirmed.

The new cases bring the state’s total since the pandemic began to 16,425 out of 287,358 tests performed — a positive rate of 5.7%. Just over 9,100 Utahns are considered recovered after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.

The spike in cases over the past three weeks has prompted officials to beg Utahns to wear face masks when in public places and to continue taking strong precautions against the disease.

“We should be very concerned. The Salt Lake County data on our dashboard mirrors what was reported statewide, and it’s a record-breaking day that just occurred,” said Ilene Risk, epidemiologist with the Salt Lake County Health Department.

She warned that Friday’s record is expected to be broken based on the trajectory of the infection, which is grim considering Utah has an 8% hospitalization rate and 1% death rate of confirmed cases.

Contact-tracing is “becoming a real struggle” as cases continue to spike, but the department is continuing to do its best to tackle it, Risk said, and focusing on outbreak investigations at work sites. Those have been a recent “huge driver” of the increase in infections, as well as long-term care facilities.

The county has not traced many cases back to the ongoing protests against police brutality and racism, according to Risk. Two cases were found to be potentially linked to protests, but the cases had other possible exposures.

When restrictions started lifting in mid-May, the surge in cases occurred after one incubation period, Risk noted. Face coverings and physical distancing can “make a huge difference,” she said.

A request to move back to the orange, or moderate phase, is something the health department would consider as cases continue to rise at a high rate, Risk said, adding that physical distancing isn’t as easy to maintain when everything is open.

But for now, a focus is needed on policies to help those who are sick stay home, she said.

“So it’s really everybody’s responsibility, because the economy is important as we move forward, we just need to do it safely,” Risk said.

“Because it’s hard to say you can’t go to work when people are living paycheck to paycheck, too.”

Exposing 100?

Utah County is also grappling with a high rise in cases.

“This week has been, I would say, particularly troubling for us as well as the rest of the state, and certainly that is something we’re concerned about and we attribute that to weather being nice, people getting outside, wanting to socialize,” said Aislynn Tolman-Hill, spokeswoman with the Utah County Health Department.

She said county health officials are seeing residents “tired of the physical and social distancing.” Team sports and larger social events have also resumed. But new cases are arising “across the board” including at workplaces, long-term care facilities and social gatherings.

Tolman-Hill said contact tracers and epidemiologists in Utah County have observed more people suspected of having infections and ignoring quarantine orders, which is particularly concerning to public health workers.

At least one person this week was discovered by contact tracers to have gone to work and recreated when they should have been quarantining, exposing up to 100 people to the disease, Tolman-Hill said.

Those who have been notified by their physicians or local health department to quarantine, those who are awaiting COVID-19 test results, and those who have had contact with a known case should remain in quarantine, she said.

The largest increases in cases Friday occurred in Salt Lake County, where 280 were confirmed; Utah County with 96; Bear River with 62; Southwest Utah with 55; Davis County with 36; and Weber-Morgan with 28.

The rest of Utah’s counties or health districts confirmed less than 10 new cases each.

“We can’t point this large increase in one day to a single outbreak,” Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said Thursday on KSL Newsradio. She said it’s a sign that “COVID-19 is just spreading more readily through our communities.”

The spike in cases can’t be attributed simply to increased testing, Dunn said. The percentage of those testing positive is increasing.

More hospitalizations

Hospital capacity remains the biggest reason to prevent widespread infection, she added, and “we are bumping against capacity now with our increase in cases.”

About 60% of hospital rooms are being used, and the increasing cases will result in additional hospitalizations.

In Utah, 24 more people were hospitalized for the novel coronavirus since Thursday’s report. Now, 149 patients are in the state’s hospitals receiving care for the disease, 63 of which are in intensive care units. But fewer ventilators are being used than earlier this week, when nearly 200 were in use. Now, 187 are being used by those with COVID-19 or other conditions.

When asked if Utah could go into lockdown or increase restrictions, Dunn said, “That’s been a conversation that we’ve been having constantly in terms of when would we, or would we ever go back to orange or red.

“And those are ongoing conversations. Of course, it is a very dynamic environment right now and it’s going to take political will, the economic indicators as well as the health indicators to all come together and make that decision. And thus far there hasn’t been a very concrete decision on that yet,” Dunn said.

Tolman-Hill noted that county health workers are trying to balance extreme opinions of residents on both sides — those who want to move to the green or least restrictive phase, and those who want to move backward and implement tighter restrictions.

“That is something that we might be able to ask to do, but that’s certainly something, not a decision that we would make in a silo. That’s a decision that would have to be really made at the governor level,” she said.

3 more deaths

Also on Friday, Beaver, Daggett, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Millard, Piute, Uintah and Wayne counties moved into the green, or “new normal” phase in the pandemic. Kane County already moved to green last week. The rest of the state remains in the low-risk, or yellow, phase except for Salt Lake City, which is in the moderate or orange phase due to a continuing rise in cases and outbreaks.

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That means those green counties, which according to officials have seen low case counts, are without any of the former restrictions implemented during the pandemic. Those there are encouraged to follow public health precautions and continue wearing face masks when in public places where physical distancing isn’t possible.

“The counties that moved to Green today cover a lot of Utah’s landmass, but only 3% of our population. They have low case counts and are sparsely populated. No area is completely free from risk, but these rural regions meet the criteria to move from Yellow to Green,” Herbert tweeted.

Three more deaths from the disease were also reported on Friday. They include a Salt Lake County man older than 85 and a long-term care resident; a Wasatch County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized when he died; and a Washington County man between 65 and 84 who was also hospitalized when he died.

Those bring the state’s death toll from the coronavirus to 155.

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

  • Salt Lake County, 8,363; 648 hospitalized; 102 deaths.
  • Utah County, 2,957; 153 hospitalized; 19 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,188; 38 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 974; 75 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
  • Davis County, 775; 58 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 616; 56 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
  • Summit County, 455; 41 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 380; 39 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 371; 18 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 188; 11 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 89; 6 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 38; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 31; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
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