What is driving the increase in COVID-19 cases in Utah?

SALT LAKE CITY – Utahns have enjoyed shopping, eating, and worshiping together again. Many have returned to the office after months of working at home. Thousands have gathered for concerts or youth sporting events.

But social interaction comes at a price.

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Utah have increased since May 27, just 12 days after Governor Gary Herbert moved most of the state to the yellow or low-orange or moderate-risk phase.

The alarming increase has prompted state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn to ask government leaders to consider drastic measures.

“We are rapidly reaching a point where the only viable option to control the spread and deaths will be a complete closure. This could be our last chance to correct course. Follow-up and contact testing alone will not control this outbreak, ”he wrote in a June 19 memo.

Aaron Dayne Smith, administrator of the Medical Reserve Corps Mobile Testing Team, examines Yareli Bermúdez for COVID-19 as she sits on the lap of her mother, Elsa Burmúdez, outside Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Monday June 22, 2020.

Aaron Dayne Smith, administrator of the Medical Reserve Corps Mobile Testing Team, examines Yareli Bermúdez for COVID-19 as she sits on the lap of her mother, Elsa Burmúdez, outside Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Monday June 22, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Dunn said Utahns worry about the state’s color-coded risk phases and change their actions accordingly.

Apparently, however, residents view low risk as no risk.

Efforts for social distance and wearing masks seem sporadic at best. Some cities and counties, even small areas within them, are vigilant, others are not. Furthermore, politics plays an important role as the severity of the coronavirus pandemic is debated.

“I am afraid that when people hear that we are going to yellow or that we are going to green, what people suppose is that it is less risky. In fact, it’s the opposite. The risk increases with the greater openness we have, “said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah Health.

With increased activity and interactions, instead of taking more precautions, people take less.

“That’s a guaranteed increase in cases,” said Swaminathan.

In his memo, Dunn wrote that if the state doesn’t hit a seven-day average of 200 cases per day by July 1, it should return to orange or moderate risk, which would limit social gatherings to 20 while continuing to call. for social distancing and the use of masks in public settings.

“This will send the message to Utahns that this outbreak remains a serious problem and that the state leadership is committed to saving lives and preventing a complete economic shutdown,” he wrote.

Dunn also asked that the government or companies compel the wearing of masks. It also recommends that the state not ease social distancing restrictions anywhere in the state until July 1.

If state leaders don’t find those things “reasonable,” we must be clear to the public about why decisions are made that lessen restrictions: financial, not health. Be clear about the health risk, “he wrote.

Herbert said in a statement Monday that he shares Dunn’s concerns about the further spread of the virus. He said his analysis will be “front and center” in state leaders’ discussion this week on how to deal with the increase in cases.

“Our plan will only be as successful as people’s willingness to protect themselves and their loved ones from the spread of the virus by following our common sense guidelines for social distancing, good hand hygiene, and especially the use of covers. facials, “said Herbert.

Utah again saw a large daily increase in COVID-19 cases on Monday, with 444 people testing positive for the virus. The state’s total since the pandemic stands at 17,906 of 299,312 tests, an overall positive rate of nearly 6%, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 hospitalizations increased from 90 to 150 in June, Dunn said. If the state continues to confirm an average of 400 new cases per day, about 213 more people will need hospitalization each week based on the state’s 8% hospitalization rate.

Over the past week, an average of 471 cases were reported each day, compared to an average of 327 the previous seven days, state health officials said. While some have questioned whether the rising cases are due to increased evidence, the numbers of evidence have actually stagnated, according to Dunn’s memo.

People wait for their COVID-19 test in their vehicles from Glendale High School in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 22, 2020.

Rachel Black, an environmental health scientist with the Salt Lake County Health Department, collects information from people waiting in their vehicles for COVID-19 testing at the entrance to Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 22 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

That was not apparent Monday outside Glendale Middle School, where a couple of hundred cars lined up at the test drive site, with some people having to wait at least two hours for their noses to be cleaned. The west side neighborhood is dealing with some of the highest rates of the virus in the entire state.

The push to get businesses back online has also contributed to the rise in COVID-19 infections.

Most of the outbreaks, three out of four new cases, have been in the workplace, said Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the Utah Department of Health.

“That is an area that we should focus on with education and some prevention efforts,” he said.

To combat the increase, the health department is putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive guide for employers to protect their workers, buildings, and offices from the virus. It will follow a manual to keep employees safe.

“The idea is that if you run a law firm in a high-rise facility or a family restaurant elsewhere in the state, this document would be helpful to you,” said Hudachko.

As state leaders try to balance shaking the cobwebs of Utah’s once-robust economy with preventing sick people from overwhelming hospitals, politics also plays a role in the equation.

“Of course, there is politics at stake on how the state is responding to this pandemic. Many elected officials have reached out to the public with a plan in the future. There were times when that plan seemed to be working well, but the problem with that approach is that when things change, and they have, elected officials need to be careful when they take credit down the road because they don’t want blame when it goes down, ” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute for Policy.

Former Utah Governor Norma Bangerter used to say that it’s great to have a highway named after you, but don’t forget that people sometimes die on that highway, he said.

“There are political consequences if this response is miscalculated or incorrect and people start dying and getting sick at higher rates,” said Perry. “The exposure that these politicians get from their approach is related to the exposure that people have to this virus.”

Swaminathan said he did not want to name names, but that “many, many large stores” he frequents do not ask his employees or customers to wear masks.

“If they wear a mask, they often use it as a kind of chin decoration. I can’t tell you how many people have a mask right over their mouth or chin, which essentially does nothing. I think it’s a big problem, “he said.

“For me, it is not a sustainable situation when you have many large stores where employees walk without masks. What that tells me is that the business doesn’t care if I get sick and die. “

If everyone wore facial covers, there would be very little transmission, Swaminathan said.

“Just because you think you are invincible doesn’t mean you should put others at risk,” he said.

A Deseret News / Hinckley Institute of Politics poll earlier this month found that 42% of Utahns feel comfortable going out in public without a mask. Another 10% say it would take about a month before they were comfortable without one, 12% say two to three months, 10% say three to six months, 12% say they are older than six months, and 4% say never.

The survey also showed that 55% of residents believe that the state has the authority to require facial coatings, while 70% say companies should be able to decide whether their customers should wear masks.

Intermountain Healthcare and other health systems in Utah plan to hold a press conference on Tuesday about the increase in cases, specifically regarding the use of masks.

“We have heard from the (Utah Hospital Association), (University of Utah), and (Intermountain Healthcare) that hospitals will exceed their ability to care for people within the next four to eight weeks,” Dunn wrote in the memo.

Although Utah is known to caregivers, Swaminathan said he doesn’t think residents are fully aware that wearing a face mask does more to protect others than to protect themselves.

“It is a matter of responsibility towards your neighbors and your community and society in general that you do everything possible to prevent the spread. It’s not just about whether you’re going to get sick or not, ”he said.

“It is not all or nothing. Just because you want to go out doesn’t mean you can’t make some sacrifices for the common good. “

Just as politics plays with state leaders’ decisions about how to deal with the pandemic, it also enters into the decisions of some Utahns about whether to wear a mask.

“We have high-level Republicans in the state, like the governor, who say that everyone should wear their mask, but there is a part of our population that says you can’t wear that mask, and they won’t,” he said.

“And that, whether for real political reasons or not, has become a kind of political statement.”

Those on the far right say they don’t need to wear a mask, and the closer you get to the left, the more likely people are to cover their faces and say everyone should wear one, Perry said.

Regardless of philosophy, he said, it has become a political hot spot.

“I think the important thing to remember is that this is not a political statement,” said Swaminathan. “It really doesn’t matter what other people think. The virus will infect people. “

Contributing: Ashley Imlay