SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 has killed five times as many people in Utah in the five months it has been around than an entire eight-month season of the flu in other years.
“There is so much we don’t know that makes it more dangerous and unpredictable moving forward,” Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said during Thursday’s briefing. “It’s already claimed more lives than the flu.”
And, influenza, she said, has a vaccine and known treatments to help fight it.
Nine more people in Utah have died with COVID-19, bringing the total number of lives lost to the novel coronavirus in Utah to 300.
State officials also discussed masks and introduced a handbook for schools that outlines protocols to prevent spread should one or more students contract the virus and need to be quarantined.
And while scientific research has shown that masks are effective in decreasing the spread of disease, particularly caused by respiratory viruses, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has not moved to mandate them throughout the Beehive State.
On Thursday, the governor approved Logan city officials’ request for a mask mandate there, effective Saturday. Similar mandates are already in place in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, and the town of Springdale, where significant declines in case numbers have shown the efficacy of face coverings during this pandemic, including “spillover” into neighboring counties, Dunn said.
“It is now abundantly clear that masks are an essential tool at slowing the spread of COVID-19,” said Ben Abbott, an associate professor of environmental science at Brigham Young University. He said masks not only slow the transmission of disease, but the severity, too.
“When masks are used, the disease is less deadly, even if you catch it,” Abbott said. “My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.”
For optimum efficacy, masks, he said, should be used with other public health measures — social distancing, proper hand hygiene, staying home when sick. Alone, they aren’t a silver bullet and might even lead to a false sense of security, Abbott said.
In combination with other measures, he said masks “could be our bridge back to normal, have huge economic payoffs and get this outbreak under control.”
Abbott’s latest compilation of more than 130 scientific studies shows that masks will help to further slow the spread of coronavirus in Utah, but also in schools, where Herbert has issued a mandate.
The state on Thursday released a new, 102-page manual to assist districts, teachers, parents and communities in the coming weeks as schools across the state reopen to students.
Herbert said all 41 school districts in Utah have outlined various plans to keep students, faculty and staff safe, including “more distance education than some of us may want right now.”
“It’s important for kids to stay in school. It is essential for their growth and development,” said Dunn. She said kids who are in close contact with a confirmed case will still be able to attend school, but under a modified quarantine approach that has been used successfully with essential employees since the pandemic began.
Children with symptoms, however, will not be allowed to attend school.
The manual, said state Superintendent Sydnee Dickson, will help everyone “know exactly what to expect,” but will be amended as new situations arise.
The health department on Thursday announced another 502 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19. The total number of people in Utah who have become infected is 39,696.
Herbert has said he wants the seven-day average number of cases per day to be below 500 by Saturday. That number reached 508 on Thursday, though, the testing positivity rate remains at 9.6%.
“I’m pleased with the fact that in the spirit of cooperation and collaboration, people are doing what they can to slow the spread of coronavirus,” he said, adding that he’s “not ready to spike the football.”
“We ought not to be letting our guard down,” Herbert said. “If we say we don’t care or ‘nobody’s going to make me wear a mask,’ we’ll have a longer time before we can get on top of the coronavirus.”
Dunn said the recent decrease in cases might be short-lived, as fewer people have been tested in recent days. She anticipates Utahns having to make what she called “lifestyle changes” for “at least another year,” until a vaccine is available.
“It behooves us all to do our part to make that trend continue,” Herbert said. “Whatever plan we have in place will only be as effective as we are in doing our part.”
In a separate briefing, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Healthcare, said reducing the case count is important, especially as schools reopen. He said large gatherings of unmasked people happening around the state are “disappointing” and “irresponsible.”
Caregivers, too, Stenehjem said, are tired.
“They’re burnt out, they’re exhausted ... and we’re just starting on this,” he said, adding that more and more younger people are ending up in hospitals and on ventilators, battling this little-known disease that is resulting in prolonged symptoms in some people.
“It’s very different from influenza,” Stenehjem said, pleading with people to help slow the spread.
Details on those who most recently died with COVID-19 are:
• A Davis County man between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death
• A Davis County man older than 85, not hospitalized but was under hospice care
• A Juab County woman between 65-84, long-term care facility resident
• A Salt Lake County man between 45-64, long-term care facility resident
• A Salt Lake County man older than 85, long-term care facility resident
• A Salt Lake County woman between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
• A Salt Lake County man between 65-84, long-term care facility resident
• A Salt Lake County woman older than 85, long-term care facility resident
• A Utah County man older than 85, hospitalized at time of death
The state estimates about 27,261 people have recovered from COVID-19, though, Dunn said it is difficult to know when symptoms actually cease, as cases vary in severity.
For more information, or to read the state’s COVID-19 School Manual, visit coronavirus.utah.gov.
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 18,817; 1,224 hospitalized; 171 deaths.
- Utah County, 7,584; 354 hospitalized; 33 deaths.
- Davis County, 2,859; 160 hospitalized; 13 deaths.
- Southwest Utah, 2,855; 159 hospitalized; 24 deaths.
- Weber-Morgan, 2,508; 159 hospitalized; 25 deaths.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 2,141; 88 hospitalized; 5 deaths.
- Summit County, 683; 52 hospitalized; 1 death.
- San Juan County, 606; 76 hospitalized; 22 deaths.
- Tooele County, 524; 26 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Wasatch County, 523; 20 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
- Central Utah, 363; 20 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 151; 8 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Southeast Utah, 82; 5 hospitalized; 0 deaths.