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New Utah COVID-19 cases dip, but weekly average remains over 800

Hot spot of Utah County looking at reasons for rise, possible action

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Sara Haight and Alta Findlay administer a COVID-19 test at a testing site run by the Salt Lake County Health Department at Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Although Utah health officials reported a substantial dip in new COVID-19 cases Monday, the state’s rolling average of daily new cases remains at a record high.

After four days with more than 900 coronavirus cases confirmed each day, Utah health officials reported 622 new cases out of 3,886 people tested Monday, a 16% positive rate. Mondays often bring lower case counts because of lagging weekend testing, so it is too soon to tell whether the new cases mark the beginning of a downward trend.

Gov. Gary Herbert’s office confirmed Monday that he met with the state’s Unified Command team to determine measures that need to be taken to fight the coronavirus surge. An announcement on the team’s decision is expected by Tuesday morning.

And in Utah County — a current COVID-19 hot spot — officials are also weighing new restrictions.

Even as Utah is seeing a surge in cases — as well as its highest rolling daily average of 847 new cases — each county remains in the low or minimal levels of restriction under the state’s phased guidelines in the pandemic. That compares to April, when much of the state was in its high-risk level but confirming daily new cases in only the mid-150s.

Utah County responds

Utah County continues to account for a large portion of the state’s new cases with 36.5% — although the county’s cases again fell below those of Salt Lake County’s on Monday.

While Utah County continues to see a large spike in cases, it’s hard to tell specifically what behavior is leading to the cases, according to Aislynn Tolman-Hill, spokeswoman with the Utah County Health Department. She noted those between the ages of 15 and 24 are largely responsible for the current surge.

Brigham Young University’s reported cases have jumped from 690 to 911, 443 of which are active. Utah Valley University, which updates its case counts on Tuesdays, had 198 cases as of last week.

“What we are really looking at is as public school has been back in session and all the activities associated with school have been kind of getting going again, and then universities are also back in sessions, probably those two things together, probably both of those are kind of in combination factoring into that big rise,” Tolman-Hill said.

She called a potential countywide mask mandate “the natural next discussion points for where we would possibly need to go as a county.” Provo recently implementing its own face covering mandate was “an encouraging thing for any locality to do,” she said.

When asked why health officials believe Utah County last week surpassed Salt Lake County in its daily case counts — and whether the lack of a mask mandate might play into it — Tolman-Hill said, “It really has kind of been a different experience here in Utah County rather than kind of what we have seen with our neighbors in the north in Salt Lake County.”

“We certainly have some leadership that have definitely been quite vocal that they are not in support of masks, and then some that are maybe more in the middle, and then some that are definitely more in support of what they’re seeing from the CDC and the state health department for what we should be doing,” Tolman-Hill said.

County leaders and health officials also must keep in mind the wishes of residents, she noted.

“As a country we like our independence, and we really don’t like to infringe upon people’s right and tell them what to do. And so it’s one of those things that we really are asking people to use their freedom and use their rights to think about themselves and think about everyone else in their community, and try to move past the pandemic by everyone doing what we know we really should be doing to try to get past this big surge,” Tolman-Hill said.

While mask mandates play a role, physical distancing does as well, she noted, as studies have shown spending more than 15 minutes near someone else increases risk of transmission.

“And it’s not just 15 minutes at a time, it’s really kind of that cumulative effect, and so that’s one of those things where school has been back in session again, it really does raise some challenges for school districts, for teachers alike. Because it’s not like you can just have your students or have yourself get up and move around every 14 minutes and you’re safe type of thing. It doesn’t really work that way,” Tolman-Hill said.

Late last week, Utah County leaders met to discuss their next steps to fight the spike in cases and hinted at the possibility of a mask mandate. Tolman-Hill said such a mandate will likely get officially proposed during a county meeting on Wednesday.

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith issued a statement Monday explaining previous statements saying he would not enforce mask mandates, and expressing frustration with the suggestion that police should enforce public health mandates.

”The spikes in the positive COVID tests are coming out of our two major universities in the county that recently started up bringing approximately 60,000 new students into the area. Both universities already have very strict mask mandates. The response should be concentrated on the problem area, not the entire population of the county as is being suggested,” Smith said.

“I find it interesting that the nation is demanding police reform, yet every time there is any crisis the response is, pass a law and let the police worry about it. Then, the only resource provided to the police is arrest or citation. I believe we can do better than that,” the sheriff added.

He said because it involves a community health issue, it shouldn’t be criminalized.

“The federal government has given Utah hundreds of millions of dollars to address this issue, Utah County received over 100 million of that, and still the best we can do with the resources and options that money could provide is dump the problem on the police by criminalizing it,” Smith said.

When gatherings in Utah were restricted to fewer than 10 people, he said many residents called police reporting others for holding family gatherings “in public places as well as private property.”

“We had incidents of public disorder between citizens due to the order. A mask mandate will generate the same responses,” he said. “The real mandate should be to our elected officials to address the specific problem in the specific areas that are affected with a community-based approach that promotes buy-in and acceptance from the community.”

Utah COVID-19 stats

Now 64,394 cases have been confirmed out of 762,051 people tested since the pandemic began, an overall positive rate of 8.5%.

One more death was also reported Monday, a Salt Lake County man older than 85 who was hospitalized when he died. He brings the state’s death toll due to the pandemic to 441 people.

Currently, 144 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19, three more than on Sunday. Since the beginning of the outbreak, 3,520 people have required hospitalization for the disease in Utah.

The state considers 51,660 COVID-19 cases to be recovered after surviving the three-week point since their diagnoses, meaning 12,293 cases remain active.

New COVID-19 cases reported Monday by health district across Utah:

  • Salt Lake County, 275.
  • Utah County, 227.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 26.
  • Davis County, 25.
  • Weber-Morgan, 21.
  • Southwest Utah, 15.
  • Central Utah, 10.
  • Tooele County, 8.
  • Wasatch County, 4.
  • Summit County, 4.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 3.
  • Southeast Utah, 3.
  • San Juan County, 1.