ST. GEORGE — As part of a series of moves by state, local and religious institutions Thursday to deal preemptively with COVID-19, Gov. Gary Herbert made an announcement recommending that people restrict the size of gatherings across Utah.
Herbert said gatherings of 100 people or more in the state are recommended to be avoided starting Monday, and those aged 60 and over are recommended to avoid any gatherings of more than 20 people.
During the press conference, Herbert echoed what most public officials are saying in regard to social interaction restrictions: They are in place to get ahead of the spread of the virus in a state that has yet to see a case.
“We are hoping for the best, preparing for the worst,” Herbert said. “I’ve not come to these decisions lightly. This is seeing what has happened in the last week with science. We’re trying to be proactive to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Herbert said the restrictions are for the next two weeks, at which time the restrictions will be reviewed.
Measures were also announced at the press conference concerning educational institutions. There has been no statewide closure as of yet for K-12 schools, but many higher education universities have moved to online classes only.
David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, told St. George News those restrictions will apply in Southern Utah, especially to religious institutions and concert venues.
“This will be for any gathering over 100, and that would include most church gatherings and concerts,” Heaton said. “We consider Herbert’s pronouncement to be effective for us, so that would mean no mass gathering.”
Heaton added that since the restrictions don’t start until Monday, concerts and church services should be unrestricted for this weekend.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took their own preemptive action Thursday afternoon, announcing all services and gatherings worldwide have been suspended.
Among the local entertainment events this weekend are concerts at the 1,920-seat Tuacahn Amphitheater in Ivins.
Tuacahn announced Thursday afternoon that the Joan Jett and the Blackhearts concert, scheduled for Friday night at the amphitheater, has been canceled at the request of the artist. A Saturday night show by Air Supply is still scheduled, as Tuacahn officials said the artist would like to continue with the show.
“My understanding is any planned concerts and gatherings through Sunday evening are still allowed,” Heaton said.
Another event that will not take place is the annual St. George Arts Festival in Town Square Park. The festival announced Thursday that the event, which was scheduled for April 10-11, has been canceled in response to COVID-19 prevention.
Local sports are also being affected, with high school athletics throughout Utah being temporarily suspended. Dixie State University and Southern Utah University also had their postseason entries in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament canceled.
The change has also strongly affected local nursing homes. The Utah Health Association, which governs nursing home and elderly care facilities, placed a new restriction Thursday that allows only medical personnel to visit residents in their homes. That means even families of residents are restricted from visiting their loved ones.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that those most susceptible to the virus are people aged 60 and over. The World Health Organization has said the fatality rate among those 80 and older infected with the virus is 18%.
At the Seasons Health and Rehab Center in St. George, relatives of patients had to be turned away. Even all medical personnel and staff had to pass a body temperature check at the door before being allowed to enter.
Jeremy Frehner, Seasons’ administrator, emphasized the restrictions are preemptive, and there are no signs of infection among their patients.
“We’ve asked families to stay away from social visits. This is just the state of things,” Frehner said. We’re not here to be fear mongers, we’re just here to protect these lovely people we’re protecting. If all the facilities in town haven’t done this, they will too be compliant.”
St. George News confirmed that other nursing homes in the area have either restricted visitors or were in the process of doing so Thursday afternoon, including Bella Terra and Red Cliffs Health in St. George. Hurricane Health and Rehabilitation is only allowing visitors on a case-by-case basis while, as of Thursday evening, Brookdale in Cedar City is still allowing visitors.
Of the 36 deaths caused by COVID-19 nationwide, 23 are linked to one nursing home in Washington state, according to the CDC. That is one of the reasons to take preemptive action, Frehner said.
“This is not the worst-case scenario. We’re being proactive,” Frehner said, who added the staff of his and other nursing care facilities are prepared for this type of situation. “People here are steady and strong and understand the implications of what’s going on. They’re vetted for this situation.”
Also taking preemptive action are local cities.
The city of St. George announced Thursday it is taking additional hygienic measures at City Hall, the St. George Recreation Center, the Sand Hollow Aquatic Center and SunTran city buses. It is unclear what the status of the aquatic center and other large gathering places will be after the state restrictions begin Monday.
Washington City released a statement Thursday saying it will be initiating some changes or restrictions in the coming days on certain uses at the Washington City Community Center and pool as well as other public areas.
Earlier this week, signs were placed at Ivins City Hall notifying visitors that they won’t receive handshakes from city workers and officials.
“We don’t want to offend anybody, we’re just trying to be proactive,” Ivins City Manager Dale Coulam said.
On the medical side, Utah health officials said the state is currently testing around 60 people statewide for the virus each day and are building capacity to do up to 1,000 per day. They also said Intermountain Healthcare is opening two drive-thru testing sites in Salt Lake City.
Heaton said at this point, local sites, including Dixie Regional Medical Center, are capable of testing patients for the virus, though at this point those tests are being sent to Salt Lake City. Heaton added steps are underway to provide more localized testing, though he had no further details at this time.
Intermountain Healthcare announced Thursday it is making changes to its emergency room intake procedures systemwide including at DRMC and Cedar City Hospital. At the same time, Intermountain officials urged all residents throughout the state to opt for the emergency room only if they are feeling the most severe symptoms.
Emergency rooms will have a separate area specifically for those complaining of respiratory issues, which will include negative pressure isolation rooms.
“We want you to come to the emergency department if you’re sick. The last thing we want to do is to bring healthy people into an unhealthy environment,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, the medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain. “For those who have mild symptoms, we’re telling you: Stay home.”
Intermountain officials said patients should use online and Telehealth resources if they have mild symptoms, consult with their medical doctor or clinic if they have concerns, and opt for the ER only if they feel they absolutely need it.
Earlier in the week, Intermountain announced new visitor limits, and officials with the health group indicated Thursday that further restrictions are likely.
Herbert said during Thursday’s press conference that there are some areas where people are “overreacting.” For example, he said, there is no reason for people to stockpile water as the virus cannot be transmitted through water supplies.
With so many changes happening, seemingly on an hourly basis, the main message is to stay calm, but be vigilant.
“We don’t need fighting at Costco and Walmart,” Herbert said. “Tempers flaring is not the Utah way.”
There has yet to be a case of COVID-19 through community spread in the state, according to the Utah Department of Health. There have been five cases of people in Utah testing positive for the virus after travel, including Utah Jazz players Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Not counted in the total by state officials is one person who was visiting from out of state who tested positive and three Utahns who were infected aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan, including a couple from St. George.
Those exhibiting symptoms are asked to call either their doctor or the hotline first before going into an emergency room or urgent care. The main symptoms of COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include fever, fatigue, body aches, cough and shortness of breath. Recent travel is an exacerbating factor.
The CDC said people will likely be tested for influenza first, as many of the symptoms are the same, and a flu diagnosis rules out COVID-19.
Coronavirus.utah.gov provides up-to-the-minute information on the spread of the virus in the state as well as educational information on how to prevent getting the virus and how to deal with it if you are infected. It also includes information for health care providers.
Health care providers evaluating a patient for suspected COVID-19 are asked to contact the Utah Department of Health immediately at 888-EPI-UTAH (374-8824).
COVID-19 information resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Intermountain Healthcare
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