SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Health on Thursday reported a whopping 911 new cases of COVID-19 — the largest daily increase in Utah so far during the pandemic.
It comes weeks after cases were starting to plateau.
“We need to take immediate action to prevent unnecessary deaths,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
She said the largest outbreaks are occurring in Utah County, but jumps in cases are happening all over the state, including in schools.
To date in Utah, there have been 60,658 known infections, though, more than half are presumed recovered.
“Today is a bad news day,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said during his weekly COVID-19 update on Thursday. “Many Utahns have done well in helping manage this pandemic, but this is a wake-up call for all of us.”
“It should cause all of us concern,” he said, adding that the magnitude of this recent spike is far too great.
Herbert said the serious nature of the recent spike in cases may warrant “stronger government intervention and measures.” He encouraged local officials and local health departments throughout the state to assess the data relative to the regions they serve and take appropriate actions to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus and its resulting infection, COVID-19.
The governor did not elaborate on what action could be taken, except to say that COVID-19 testing in Utah will be expanded to include “anyone who wants to be tested,” including those without symptoms.
“We need to have better testing and more testing,” Herbert said. “We need to make sure people are not inhibited to get their testing done.”
A similarly high number of daily cases took weeks to reach during the summer, but it took just one week to reach Thursday’s all-time high daily count, Dunn said. She worries that youth will carry and transmit the disease to older, more vulnerable populations, which will lead to more hospitalizations and deaths in Utah.
More than 735,138 people, including an increase of 5,447 people since Wednesday, have been tested for COVID-19 in the state.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is now 661 per day, with a percent positivity rate of 11.6%.
Hospitalizations have hovered around 120 in recent days and weeks, where it was reported to be on Thursday. And the health department had no new deaths to report.
Utah County spike
More than 40% of the new cases are coming out of Utah County, an area that makes up just 20% of the state’s entire population. Dunn said the area is averaging a case rate that is six times greater than the state as a whole.
Herbert said he respects what Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University are doing to slow the spread of disease among students there — including requiring face coverings on campus. But, he said, the transmission of disease is happening off campus, at parties and other gatherings where personal responsibility is going out the window.
“The problem I have is with the students who are not following the advice put in place by their institutions,” Herbert said. “That’s not the right attitude to have. I’m not sure the inconvenience and the sacrifice we are asking of our students is worth the defiant attitude.”
Young people, he said, may not have serious reactions to the virus but can spread it to more vulnerable populations that have been documented to have more severe disease, more hospitalizations and more deaths.
Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, said that even though the majority of new cases are among students between the ages of 14 and 24 in Utah County, the rise in cases shouldn’t be underplayed.
“This is a really challenging population ... but the fact of the matter is, we have to do something,” Stenehjem said, adding that the younger population “has social forces stacked against them.”
He expects hospitalizations to increase in the next couple to three weeks as a result of the current increase in infection.
“We will see ongoing continued transmission if we don’t do anything,” Stenehjem said.
No statewide action
Herbert said he’s postponing granting any requests from other counties in Utah that might be looking for a change in status until at least next week. He called the current situation “a red flag warning,” but declined to enact stricter measures, such as a statewide mask mandate.
He did say the prospect is not off the table, but that he prefers mandates to come from local, elected officials who better understand their territories.
“This battle is not going to be over anytime soon,” Herbert said, adding that a number of tools have yet to be used.
State officials will meet this weekend to discuss further methods to curb the current spike in disease.
“We don’t want to overreact, but we also don’t want to underreact,” Herbert said. He’s concerned with people who are blatantly ignoring public health guidelines and said wearing a mask, as well as social distancing are important aspects of slowing the spread of disease in Utah.
“I’m alarmed with the lack of concern some Utahns have for the well-being of others,” he said, adding that change will not come without people modifying their daily behavior.
“The pandemic will run wild,” Herbert said.
He assured Utahns that until a vaccine becomes available, “this is just a stretch of the road that is a little bumpy.”
Both Herbert and Dunn said adherence to public health guidelines is imperative in stopping further spread. There is still potential to overwhelm the health care systems in the state, taking away hospital beds from people who need them, especially with influenza season quickly approaching.
“If we just let this spread, a lot of people will get it and a lot of people will do just fine,” Stenehjem said. “There will be a lot of really sick people and that will quickly outpace the resources.”
The infectious disease specialist expected an increase in cases, particularly driven by extracurricular activity across high school and college campuses, but, he said, something has to change because it is spreading into communities and extending beyond campus.
“We are all part of the solution here and need to do our part,” Dunn said.
For more information and up-to-date statistics, visit coronavirus.utah.gov.
New COVID-19 cases reported on Wednesday and Thursday by health districts across Utah:
- Utah County, 309 on Wednesday and 408 on Thursday.
- Salt Lake County, 272 on Wednesday and 338 on Thursday.
- Davis County, 46 and 50.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 38 and 38.
- Weber-Morgan, 37 and 35.
- Southwest Utah, 23 and 23.
- Tooele County, 7 and 5.
- Wasatch County, 6 and 6.
- Central Utah, 4 and 8.
- Summit County, 2 and 2.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 2 and -2.
- Southeast Utah, 1 and 1.
- San Juan County, 0 and 3.