SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah on Friday confirmed a staggering 1,117 new COVID-19 cases in one day, Gov. Gary Herbert warned new restrictions could be in the cards for the state.
It marks the first time more than 1,000 new cases have been reported in a single day in Utah since the pandemic began, and topples the previous daily record by more than 200. But it’s too soon to tell if this is the long-expected second wave of the disease, said Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Health.
Gov. Gary Herbert called the high number of cases “alarming” and said there’s “no room for lackadaisical behavior.”
“We are clearly in an upward trend of cases. For months, we have warned people that they need to stay home if they are sick, and they need to stay away from others if they have tested positive for COVID-19,” Herbert said in a statement.
“They need to wear a mask around others, even when they are not sick. We all need to consider the common public good when making daily decisions,” Herbert said.
Since Thursday, 8,559 people were tested for COVID-19, with a 13.1% positive rate, according to the Utah Department of Health. The rolling seven-day average for new cases is 726 per day, and the average percent of positive tests is 12.5%. Currently, 131 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, 11 more than on Thursday.
Herbert said the week’s high case counts “make me seriously question if these warnings and public education are enough. I will meet with the Unified Command leadership again Monday to discuss needed interventions. I’d like to emphasize that all of the tools that government has for controlling the spread of COVID-19 are on the table. We are seriously considering each one of them,” he said.
“In the meantime, I am encouraged by discussions occurring between Utah County elected officials and am glad to see them consulting with public health experts and treating this spike in cases seriously.”
No new deaths were reported on Friday, leaving the state’s death toll at 437.
Utah County cases
For the second day in a row, Herbert called out Utah County students for their part in the state’s case increases and warned the county of potential tighter restrictions.
“The recent spike in cases we are having in Utah county is particularly concerning. Over this week, 40% of our new cases have come from Utah County, despite them only accounting for roughly 20% of our population. This disproportionate rise serves as a stark red-flag warning to all Utahns,” Herbert said Friday on Facebook.
“The data has shown much of this increased case count is coming from our college population. Though I understand the desire to interact with peers, I encourage our young people to exercise greater caution when doing so. Not everyone is at high-risk for COVID complications, but we all are equally affected by an unwillingness to follow guidelines,” Herbert said.
As of Friday, BYU’s confirmed infections had jumped to 690, 402 of which are active, according to the university’s self-reported data. Meanwhile, Utah Valley University has confirmed 198 cases as of the school’s last update on Monday.
Herbert said he’s meeting with county officials this week “to determine what interventions will be necessary to curb outbreaks in Utah County.”
Provo city officials said in a statement that they joined other local and county leaders Friday for an emergency meeting to discuss “possible options to slow the spread.”
“Support was shown for a countywide positive education campaign with strong student engagement and involvement. Additionally, policy ideas were discussed, such as a mask mandate for large gatherings or limiting numbers at mass gatherings. Both measures are directed at large gatherings taking place off-campus, considered to be a probable contributor to the case increase,” city officials said.
“With today’s case count of 1,117 showing health urgency, all agreed to schedule another meeting as soon as possible to discuss necessary actions,” according to the statement.
Statewide, the 15-24 age group now accounts for more than 15,000 cases since the start of the pandemic — making it the group with the second-highest case count behind those ages 25-44.
But those between the ages of 15-24 are also among the least likely to require hospitalization. In Utah, that demographic has a hospitalization rate of just 1.5% of confirmed cases, which could partially explain why Utah hasn’t seen a rise in hospitalizations since cases started rising about two weeks ago. It also takes about two weeks before someone with a serious COVID-19 case gets to the point where they need hospitalization, officials have said.
Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, warned Thursday 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.
“Today will be another bad day for Utah SARS-CoV-2 cases. Hospitalization and deaths will increase in the coming days to weeks. Prove me wrong Utah,” Stenehjem tweeted on Friday before the high case counts were released.
Salt Lake mayors react
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall expressed anxiety over the growing case counts and asked residents to be vigilant.
“1,117 new cases is staggering. What would be worse? Continuing to see Utah beat that number. And that’s where we’re headed if we don’t make a change now. I’ve talked with @SLCoMayor and know that she is concerned too,” Mendenhall tweeted.
“I am prepared to ask the county to enact meaningful restrictions that impact case counts countywide, which may include a request to return to the orange restriction phase. In the meantime I’m asking all Salt Lake City residents to take great precautions in the days and weeks ahead. Wear a mask, stay socially distanced, reconsider getting together in large groups. Nothing is more important than your health and the health of loved ones,” she said.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson also called for residents to “work together” to protect the community, especially those most vulnerable.
“We are extremely concerned about this growth, which is occurring primarily among the 15-24-year-old age groups. The increase is significant in many communities, up 300% of cases in less than a week. Data has shown us that these groups are typically less likely to end up in hospital or ICU beds, but the risk of one of these cases transmitting the virus to an older or more immunocompromised friend, family, or congregation member is still high,” Wilson noted in a statement.
Though Utah is seeing a spike in cases, one projection says the fall wave of the disease is still to come.
The University of Washington Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation projected early in August that without universal mask wearing and if restrictions ease in Utah, the state could see another wave of COVID-19 cases beginning in October and peaking in December, with more than 10,000 cases occurring a day by then.
Projections, however, come with a lot of unknowns as restrictions get put into place or are lifted, and as more data about the disease becomes known, researchers have said.
Utah officials have said throughout the pandemic they are using the University of Washington projections and others as they make decisions in the fight against the pandemic.
The institute’s model has been updated to project Utah’s fall wave of the disease could begin in November and culminate in nearly 9,000 cases a day in December. But with most residents wearing masks, the institute says Utah could see slower growth during a second wave, with under 300 daily cases occurring at a Jan. 1 peak.
On Thursday Herbert called the current situation “a red-flag warning,” but again 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.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll shows just under one-third of Utahns strongly approve of Herbert’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, 37% somewhat approve, 16% somewhat disapprove, 12% strongly disapprove, and 4% aren’t sure.
The poll, however, was conducted before the state started seeing another spike in new infections last week. Pollster Scott Rasmussen surveyed 1,000 Utah likely voters Sept. 7-12 for the poll. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Herbert’s approval rating has improved since a previous Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll conducted July 27 through Aug. 1, when Utah was just starting to see a decrease in cases after an early-summer spike. At that time, 57% said they either strongly approve or somewhat disapprove, and 36% said they disapprove of Herbert’s pandemic response.