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Utah meets goal of decreasing average daily COVID-19 cases, but mask mandate still on table

Friday’s rolling seven-day average of new cases is 457, and the positive test rate is 9.9%

University of Utah Health medical assistant Scott Anderson wears a FlexiFreeze cooling vest as he tests a motorcycle rider for COVID-19 in Farmington on Friday, July 31, 2020. U of U Health is using cooling methods at its testing stations to keep employees comfortable during the extreme heat.
University of Utah Health medical assistant Scott Anderson wears a FlexiFreeze cooling vest as he tests a motorcycle rider for COVID-19 in Farmington on Friday, July 31, 2020. University of Utah Health is using cooling methods at its testing stations to keep employees comfortable during the extreme heat.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah dipped below 500 average daily new COVID-19 cases on Friday — the day before the Aug. 1 deadline for which Gov. Gary Herbert warned could bring greater government restrictions if that goal wasn’t met.

The Beehive State confirmed exactly 500 more cases of the novel coronavirus and four additional deaths on Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported. The rolling seven-day average of new cases is now 457, and the positive test rate is 9.9%.

On Thursday, the average was 508 with a 9.6% positive rate.

As this week has brought lower daily case counts, it’s also brought lower testing numbers — but the positive rate remains relatively high. Just over 4,500 test results were included in Friday’s tally, with a positive rate of 11%.

And though the goal of fewer than 500 cases was narrowly met, restrictions such as a mask mandate still remain on the table, Herbert’s office said Friday.

Mask mandate?

“It’s very promising, and we’re extremely happy that we did see that number today, but we’ll wait for tomorrow and kind of go from there,” Brooke Scheffler, spokeswoman with the governor’s office, said.

She said Herbert will continue looking at the data into next week and continue discussions with other leaders about what should happen next. The lower testing numbers and high positive rate will also play into his decision whether to implement more restrictions, such as a mask mandate, Scheffler said, but she did not know to what extent.

Officials with the Utah Department of Health also remained cautiously optimistic about the decrease in the state’s average.

“I think it’s definitely a good sign, and we’re continuing to move in the right direction. I think everybody is still a little bit hesitant about what the numbers this week really mean just in terms of, we have seen lower testing and what role the 24th of July holiday potentially played into that,” Tom Hudachko, state health department spokesman, noted.

Utah’s testing capacity remains at an average of 7,000 a day. To continue performing tests at a high capacity, University of Utah Health, one of the largest test administrators in northern Utah, has implemented safety measures to work throughout the summer heat including cooling vests, stand-up cooling units and cooling stations

Traffic controller Mike Green shows his FlexiFreeze cooling vest as University of Utah Health workers test for COVID-19 in Farmington on Friday, July 31, 2020. U of U Health is using cooling methods to keep employees comfortable while working in the extreme heat.
Traffic controller Mike Green shows his FlexiFreeze cooling vest as University of Utah Health workers test for COVID-19 in Farmington on Friday, July 31, 2020. U of U Health is using cooling methods to keep employees comfortable while working in the extreme heat.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

But Hudachko said testing sites have reported less demand the past five to seven days. Officials and site administrators don’t know whether it’s due to the holiday weekend or fewer infections actually occurring.

“We have seen a slight decrease in testing. It’s not due to lack of test capacity. It’s not due to the fact that we are limiting testing, but it is something that we’ll have to kind of really keep a really close eye on, and how that impacts our total case counts, especially if we’re setting specific public health measures to our case counts,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician, said Thursday in a news conference.

The test positive rate remaining around 10% indicates there is still a high community prevalence and transmission, he said.

“We are seeing cases going down throughout Utah, but the biggest impact so far is in Salt Lake County, where we’re seeing the biggest bending of the curve,” Stenehjem said.

Salt Lake — which once accounted for more than half of the state’s new cases — and Summit counties have both reported decreases due to mask mandates implemented just over a month ago. Logan announced its own mandate on Thursday.

But Stenehjem said Utah could see increased cases due to the 24th of July, which would begin to get identified over the weekend.

When asked earlier this week what she would recommend should Utah not reach its goal of a daily average below 500, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn simply said she is recommending measures that have worked in other states and countries.

When asked Friday what Dunn will recommend should the average rise again, Hudachko said she is “still in the same position as last time.”

“The governor is aware of the options that he has at his disposal, and he’s the one who will make any determinations as far as changing the response,” he added.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, who won Utah’s June 30 GOP gubernatorial primary, also said he’ll defer to Herbert on a statewide mask mandate.

“Look, I get it,” Cox said when asked whether he supports requiring all Utahns to wear masks. “But I’m the lieutenant governor. We advise the governor. We’re working very closely with the governor. This is his decision and I can’t get in front of him on this one”

That means, he said, “I support the governor. He’s been very clear if the numbers don’t continue to come down that we will need a mandate. We’re begging people to wear masks. We want people to wear masks. We’ll continue to do so.”

The lieutenant governor said he thinks “mask wearing is going up fairly significantly, even in places that don’t have a mandate,” citing a recent study by Salt Lake County.

“We will be doing some studies in different counties over the next day and weeks to see where the percentage is of people wearing masks,” Cox said. “Again, the governor has to make that decision and I’m trying to help give him the information he needs to make that happen.”

Cox, who was accused of politicizing the pandemic by his primary opponents was put in charge of the state’s COVID-19 response by Herbert but took a less visible role during the campaign.

Current case totals

Just over 40,000 of 528,910 Utahns have tested positive for the disease since the pandemic began, a 7.6% positive rate.

Currently, 213 patients in Utah are receiving hospital treatment for the disease, five more than on Thursday. The state’s intensive care units — which have about 600 beds overall — are 66.3% full with coronavirus patients and others, while other hospital beds are 56.9% full.

About 2,400 people have needed hospitalization for COVID-19 in Utah since the start of the outbreak.

The latest fatalities were two Salt Lake County men and one Cache County man, all between ages 65-84 and residents in long-term care facilities. A San Juan County woman. also between 65-84, died while hospitalized.

They bring the state’s death toll to the novel coronavirus to 304, of whom 142 were long-term care residents.

Just over 28,000 of Utah’s cases are considered recovered after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.

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

  • Salt Lake County, 19,036; 1,237 hospitalized; 173 deaths.
  • Utah County, 7,688; 362 hospitalized; 33 deaths.
  • Davis County, 2,909; 164 hospitalized; 13 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 2,901; 162 hospitalized; 24 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 2,553; 155 hospitalized; 25 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 2,152; 90 hospitalized; 6 deaths.
  • Summit County, 687; 53 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • San Juan County, 613; 76 hospitalized; 23 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 527; 26 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 525; 20 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 369; 20 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 153; 8 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 83; 4 hospitalized; 0 deaths.