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Rising COVID-19 cases mean we may need to move state back to orange, Utah epidemiologist says

Warning from epidemiologist to health leaders comes amid record-breaking week in new COVID-19 cases

Klo Hset is tested for COVID-19 by Ameritech College of Healthcare student Taylor Meono in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 12, 2020. COVID-19 was first detected in Salt Lake County on March 4, 2020, 100 days ago, and the number of known cases has grown to over 6,000 in the county alone.
Klo Hset is tested for COVID-19 by Ameritech College of Healthcare student Taylor Meono in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 12, 2020. COVID-19 was first detected in Salt Lake County on March 4, 2020, 100 days ago, and the number of known cases has grown to over 6,000 in the county alone.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If Utah doesn’t decrease its daily new COVID-19 case count to no more than 200 per day by July, the state will need to move back into its orange, or moderate, risk phase in the pandemic, according to the state’s top epidemiologist.

Face coverings also need to be mandated now, either by the government or business enforcement, Dr. Angela Dunn wrote in a memo to state and local leaders on Friday.

“All of our goals are aligned — keep the economy open and prevent deaths/ illnesses. We are quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown. This might be our last chance for course correction. Contact tracing and testing alone will not control this outbreak,” said Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.

If mandating face coverings and increasing Utah’s risk phase aren’t “reasonable,” officials “need to be clear with public about why decisions are being made lessening restrictions — economic, not health. Be clear about health risk. Be clear about how these decisions are made and who makes them. This will better equip the public to make informed decisions about how to protect themselves and their health,” she explained.

Utah again saw a large daily rise in COVID-19 cases on Monday, with 444 people testing positive for the virus. The new cases were confirmed as 2,917 tests were administered for a positive rate of 15.2%. They bring the state’s total since the pandemic began to 17,906 of 299,312 tests given, an overall positive rate of nearly 6%, according to the Utah Department of Health.

For the past week, an average of 471 cases has been reported each day, compared to an average of 327 the previous seven days, state health officials said. While some have questioned whether the rising cases are due to increased testing, testing numbers have actually plateaued in the state, according to Dunn’s memo.

COVID-19 hospitalizations, meanwhile, rose from 90 to 150 in June, Dunn said. If the state continues to confirm an average of 400 new cases per day, about 213 more people will need hospitalization each week based on the state’s 8% hospitalization rate.

“If we do not reach a rolling 7-day average of 200/cases per day by July 1, we need to move the entire state to orange. This will send the message to Utahns that this outbreak continues to be a serious problem, and state leadership is committed to saving lives and preventing a complete economic shutdown,” Dunn wrote.

“We have heard from the (Utah Hospital Association), (University of Utah), and (Intermountain Healthcare) that hospitals are going to exceed their capacity to care for individuals within the next 4-8 weeks,” the epidemiologist added.

She said 200 daily cases can likely be managed through contact tracing, aggressive testing and “pointed” public messaging, but the ongoing trend of higher cases makes those actions less effective.

Eight more people entered hospitals in Utah with the novel coronavirus since Sunday’s report. The total current hospitalizations in the state is now 171, two higher than the previous day.

Of those in hospitals receiving treatment for COVID-19, 67 are in intensive care units, which are full to 60.1% capacity. All non-intensive care beds in the state are at 49.8% capacity, according to state health department data. Of the state’s nearly 1,300 ventilators, 163 are in use by coronavirus patients and others.

The largest rises in new cases Monday occurred in Salt Lake County, where 174 were confirmed; Utah County, with 127; Southwest Utah, with 48; the Bear River Health District, with 42; and Davis County, with 21.

The rest of Utah’s counties and health districts each saw 10 or fewer cases confirmed Monday.

No new deaths were reported, leaving the state’s toll at 158.

BYU grads create COVID-19 ventilators

Even as health officials warn of a potential surge in demand on the state’s hospital system after the three-week spike in cases, a group of recent Brigham Young University graduates announced they’ve received emergency approval from the FDA to sell ventilators they created in response to the pandemic.

The students originally formed the company NeoNatal Rescue in 2016 and manufactured ventilators for newborns in developing countries after the founders’ infant was born with an undiagnosed heart defect and spent several weeks hooked up to a ventilator.

“This cause is very personal to us,” Erica Palmer, who co-founded the organization with her husband, said in a statement.

“Our son is here with us today because we were lucky enough to live somewhere where he could receive the medical care he needed. We believe that a lack of equipment should not be a barrier to health care for anyone in the world, and that every patient should be given every possible opportunity to recover,” she said.

When COVID-19 hit, the group began modifying the infant ventilators for adult use.

“When we first started on this project in late March, it was a race against the clock,” said Kindall Palmer, co-founder and CEO of NeoNatal Rescue.

“States were projecting that they would be short tens of thousands of ventilators within weeks. We realized that our experience designing a ventilator for low-resource settings and going through the FDA approval process with our newborn ventilator put us in a unique position to address this need, and we decided we had to jump in and help.”

In receiving approval for their ventilators — which they say are portable, more affordable and easy to manufacture — the BYU graduates join prominent organizations like NASA, GE and Philips in recently receiving emergency-use authorization for new ventilator designs. The Utah company’s ventilators, unlike traditional ventilators, contain internal pumps and batteries, meaning they can be used in makeshift hospital settings.

“It’s pretty cool that a small, Utah-based organization that we started as a bunch of college students a few years ago developed a medical device that made it onto this list and will go on to save the lives of COVID-19 patients,” Palmer said.

For more information, visit neonatalrescue.org.

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

  • Salt Lake County, 9,052; 670 hospitalized; 102 deaths.
  • Utah County, 3,263; 163 hospitalized; 21 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,316; 40 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 1,104; 79 hospitalized; 10 deaths.
  • Davis County, 877; 61 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 676; 59 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
  • Summit County, 466; 43 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 386; 39 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 384; 19 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 202; 11 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 110; 7 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 39; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 31; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.