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Utah’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases was ‘inevitable’ but no cause for panic, epidemiologist says

Many new cases traced to workplace outbreaks; 3 new deaths reported Monday

Heidi Calquin gets tested for COVID-19 at a TestUtah testing site outside of Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Thursday, May 28, 2020.
Heidi Calquin gets tested for COVID-19 at a TestUtah testing site outside of Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Thursday, May 28, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Many of Utah’s new COVID-19 cases are occurring as more people return to the workplace after the state loosened restrictions in May, an epidemiologist said Monday.

Last week brought record daily case increases, with 546 — the highest number confirmed in one day since the pandemic began — on Saturday. About 21% of Utah’s total coronavirus cases were confirmed in the last eight days alone.

But how worried should residents be?

“We’re always concerned with rises in cases. It seems to be that it’s consistent, and we’ll have to watch and wait and see. But whenever you have loosening of restrictions, then that’s always kind of an inevitable thing that will happen, and more congregating,” said Mary Hill, epidemiologist with the Salt Lake County Health Department.

On Monday, the Beehive State confirmed 256 additional cases of the novel coronavirus out of 4,948 tested, a nearly 5.2% positive rate. The cases bring the state’s total since the outbreak began to 12,322 of 242,899 — an overall positive rate of about 5.1%, according to the Utah Department of Health.

In Utah, 7,255 people are considered recovered from COVID-19 after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.

Three more deaths with the disease were reported Monday in Utah — two Salt Lake County women, one older than 85 and one between the ages of 60 and 85; and one Davis County man between 60 and 85. All three were hospitalized when they died.

Those three bring the state’s death toll from the disease to 124.

New Utah COVID-19 cases over the past week:

  • Monday, June 1: 202
  • Tuesday, June 2: 203
  • Wednesday, June 3: 295
  • Thursday, June 4: 316
  • Friday, June 5: 439
  • Saturday, June 6: 546
  • Sunday June 7: 268
  • Monday, June 8: 256

Salt Lake County, Utah’s largest, has seen 51% of the state’s cases, 67% of the deaths, and about 58% of the hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

Specific neighborhoods in Salt Lake City also have among the highest rates of the disease, according to Utah Department of Health data. The city is one of just a few in the state that remains in the orange, or moderate-risk phase.

The recent spike in cases has not surprised public health workers after a holiday weekend, a week of mass gatherings protesting the killing by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and the nearly statewide loosening of restrictions as Utah moved to its yellow, or low-risk phase in the pandemic, Hill said.

“There’s been a holiday, there’s been riots, people are getting out more, so it’s inevitable,” she said.

It’s too soon to know how the protests impacted disease spread in the area, but health workers expect more cases attributable to them.

For now, officials are trying to mitigate spread through strict contact tracing and quarantine, and are closely watching the new cases and how they interact with other data factors, including hospitalization use.

On Monday, the state reported 18 new patients were hospitalized with the novel coronavirus. Utah now has 112 people in hospitals with the disease, six fewer than on Sunday.

Hill called the case increases “cautionary,” but said many of them come down to large boosts in targeted testing, workplace outbreaks or outbreaks at long-term care facilities. Those increases don’t necessarily represent a risk to the whole county.

Someone who contracts the disease at work is then likely to spread it to members of their household, according to Hill.

“We’re seeing a lot of workplace outbreaks,” she said, and they’re increasing since restrictions were loosened.

While outbreaks have been reported at manufacturing sites in Utah County and Cache County, no workplace is immune to seeing COVID-19 spread. It’s easier to avoid spreading the disease among people who are working outside, but “any time you’re in a building together at a close, confined space, then you’re going to see spread,” Hill said.

Logan announced Monday that its city library and recreation center will both close until further notice. The closures come after the Cache County area saw a spike last week in cases when an outbreak was confirmed at a meat packaging facility.

Masks are now encouraged at all city offices.

“To help with those impacted by the virus, Logan city will use federal COVID-19 mitigation funds to provide additional support to the Cache Community Food Pantry, and will provide city staff members to assist the Bear River Health Department to deliver food and supplies to families quarantined due to COVID-19,” city officials said in a statement.

During the state’s high- and moderate-risk phases, Utah officials emphasized the need for businesses to use telecommuting and remote work when possible. Meanwhile, the low-risk phase encourages employers to “use discretion” with remote work and as employees return to onsite work.

But because of the additional workplace outbreaks that public health workers are now tracing cases back to, “I think it’s important that people try to telecommute if they can,” Hill said.

She did not immediately know the percentage of cases in the county that have been traced back to workplaces, but that information will soon be available on the Salt Lake County Health Department COVID-19 dashboard, she said.

If businesses can’t operate using remote work and telecommuting, they should take extra precautions including ensuring employees wear face masks, spacing work stations at least 6 feet apart, regularly cleaning equipment including phones and computers — especially those that are shared, according to Hill.

Even though the state is in its low-risk phase, the rising cases indicate that individuals also need to take responsibility for their own health, and it’s more important now than ever that they wear masks, social distance, wash their hands properly and avoid touching their faces, the epidemiologist said.

“If you’re sick, stay home. If somebody in your house is sick, try to quarantine for two weeks so that you’re not taking it out to your work and to your social contacts. ... We see a lot of people who are asymptomatic, and they tend to spread it more. So if you’re not sure, then talk to the health department and see if you can get tested,” Hill said.

Local health departments do what they can to prevent spread through contact tracing, “but we can only go so far. The public really needs to do their own part, too,” according to Hill.

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

  • Salt Lake County, 6,296; 528 hospitalized; 83 deaths.
  • Utah County, 2,310; 122 hospitalized; 17 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 767; 25 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 637; 51 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Davis County, 564; 52 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
  • Summit County, 437; 40 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 397; 40 hospitalized; 8 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 333; 32 hospitalized; 5 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 332; 15 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 150; 9 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 51; 3 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 26; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 22; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.