The doctor who became a “household name” in Utah’s efforts to stem the COVID-19 pandemic is stepping down.

On Tuesday, Salt Lake County announced state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn will head the county’s health department, replacing longtime Director Gary Edwards, who is retiring. Dunn played a prominent role in the state’s response to the deadly virus, and was the subject of both protest and praise.

Anti-mask protesters target state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn

“Dr. Dunn is a household name due to her strength and expertise demonstrated at the state during COVID, but she is equally knowledgeable and committed to all aspects of public health,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said, citing Dunn’s “broad range of clinical, public health and epidemiologic experience.”

Dunn said in a statement she is “excited to join one of the nation’s most respected local health departments. I’m honored to serve the people who live and work in Salt Lake County, which is also my home, and I’m looking forward to working alongside the amazing public health professionals in Salt Lake County.” 

She has been with the state health department since 2014, starting on assignment from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an epidemic intelligence service officer, and has served as state epidemiologist since 2018.

“It’s hard to overstate the truly lifesaving contributions Dr. Dunn has made to Utah’s COVID-19 response,” Tom Hudachko, Utah Department of Health spokesman, said in a statement. “Whether it was her steady voice at the press briefing podium, or her capable leadership at the table where decisions are made, Dr. Dunn was always a champion for the health and well-being of Utah residents.”

Dunn has been a fixture throughout the pandemic at weekly briefings held by the governor’s office to detail the latest information about the coronavirus alongside then-Gov. Gary Herbert and his lieutenant governor in charge of the response, Spencer Cox, now Utah’s governor.

Cox described Dunn as “a dedicated public servant, a staunch advocate for following the science and one of my most trusted advisers. Her expertise and facility in translating complex scientific research into plain language has been invaluable during the COVID-19 crisis. I will miss having her on the state’s team, but I’m glad she will continue to serve Utahns living in Salt Lake County.”

Dunn’s departure comes amid raised concern about an increase of COVID-19 cases in several counties.

Corey Clark receives a COVID-19 nasal swab test at the Utah State Fairpark. The novel coronavirus hasn’t gone away just yet. In fact, it’s still very much out there.
Corey Clark receives a COVID-19 nasal swab test at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on April 19, 2021. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Doctors uncertain what’s behind rise of cases

Three of Utah’s local health departments — Davis, Weber and Morgan, and Wasatch counties — are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, but it’s not clear why that’s happening, University of Utah Health officials said Tuesday as the state reported 315 new cases and eight additional deaths from the virus.

“We really don’t know the answer,” Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer for the hospital system, told reporters during a virtual news conference. “Right now, it’s just a concern. When we see this in a few counties, that means there’s a bit of an outbreak in that population relative to the rest of the state.”

The upticks in cases in some counties over the last week to two weeks are based on an analysis of the percent change in the rolling seven-day average of new cases by local health departments between Jan. 7 and April 17, said Erin Clouse, U. Health strategic engagement manager. A steady decline is seen elsewhere.

Vinik said there has been “a dramatic rise” in what’s known as the U.K. variant of the virus in Utah.

In early February, the doctor said data suggested the highly contagious variant that forced lockdowns in Britain and other countries accounted for less than 1% of the COVID-19 cases tested at the university. As of last week, he said, about 40% of the health system’s positive cases are from the variant.

“That’s a very rapid increase and that likely is contributing to the increased cases we’re seeing statewide and may have something to do with the pockets we’re seeing as well,” Vinik said, adding “we fully do expect to see cases go up” over the next few weeks.

But the coming spike in cases he sees shouldn’t be as bad as it’s been in other states hit hard by the variant, he said, especially Michigan, where the mutation is reportedly responsible for some 70% of COVID-19 cases. Vinik said Utah is in better shape because the state is “doing such a great job with vaccinations.”

Just over half, 51% of Utahns 16 and older have had at least one dose of vaccine, Clouse said. Utah was among the first states to make the shots available to all adults; the vaccines are not yet approved for anyone under 16 years old.

State reports another 8 deaths, 315 new cases

The Utah Department of Health reported 315 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number of cases in the state since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago to 393,272.

There have been 1,916,922 vaccine doses administered in Utah, a daily increase of 18,065.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 375 per day, and 5,100 Utahns have taken 13,574 tests since Monday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 3.2% when all results are included, and 6.7% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

Currently, 138 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah.

The state’s death toll is now 2,174, with the eight deaths reported Tuesday. Those deaths, including four that occurred prior to March 20, are:

• A Uintah County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• A Carbon County woman, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized.

• A Salt Lake County woman, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized.

• A Weber County man, between 25 and 44, hospitalized.

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• A Utah County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident. 

• A Sanpete County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• A Weber County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized.

• A Uintah County woman, between 45 and 64, hospitalized.

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