First COVID-19 death in Utah; Health officials contact those exposed to positive patient in Southern Utah

A Co-Diagnostics COVID-19 testing kit is pictured in Salt Lake City, Utah on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. | Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via Associated Press, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A day after the first positive COVID-19 test in Washington County was announced, the Utah Department of Health reported the first death in the state as a result of the virus: a man “older than 60” in Davis County, which is in the northern portion of the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. 

Co-Diagnostics lab analyst Madison Stark works with samples as the company produces COVID-19 testing kits in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. | Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred/The Deseret News via Associated Press, St. George News

St. George News has also learned more details concerning the first person who tested positive for the virus in Washington County. 

Also Sunday, both of Utah’s United States senators – Mitt Romney and Mike Lee – announced they are going into self-quarantine after being in direct contact with fellow Senator Rand Paul, who was diagnosed with the virus.

On Saturday, the Southwest Utah Health Department announced the first person to be tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in Washington County. That person is the second person to have the virus in the county, joining a man who acquired the virus while on a cruise ship vacation and tested positive in California.  

David Heaton, spokesperson for Southwest Utah Health Department, said because of confidentiality and the protection of the privacy of the patient and their family, the most that can be revealed is they are a resident of Washington County. Their gender and exact city are not being revealed. 

However, Heaton said protections are in place that ensure that those who have had contact with the person are being informed and asked to self-quarantine. 

“Our surveillance staff do a contact tracing of where the person has been going. If there seems to be a risk, we notify those people and ask them to self-isolate,” Heaton said. “We can’t always know where a person has been, but we back track. We go to those people individually.”

Kassidy Peterson, the epidemiologist for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, told St. George News a lot of work is done to make sure the safety of others can be assured.

“We call the patient and talk to them about any healthcare workers they may have exposed, close contacts – especially in the same household – and if they have spent any time in very close contact with others,” Peterson said. 

Heaton confirmed the person likely acquired the virus out of the country and that there is no evidence they acquired the virus from someone in the United States or Southern Utah. 

Cases in Washington County

A map by the Utah Department of Health showing the density of those who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus as of March 22, 2020. | Map courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News

As of right now, there are three people who have had the virus in Washington County, two of whom are still infected.

  • An unidentified resident of Washington County who tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus on March 21.
  • Jerri Jorgenson, who was the first resident of the county infected while on the Diamond Princess cruise ship during an Asia vacation. After spending 15 days in a Japanese hospital, Jorgenson was declared virus free and returned to her home in St. George on March 4.
  • Her husband Mark Jorgensen, who also was infected on the cruise ship and tested positive on Feb. 24 while in Fairfield, California. He was moved to Intermountain Medical Center in the Salt Lake City area on Feb. 28 and became the first person treated for the virus in the state. He has since also returned to his home in St. George

Concerning Mark Jorgenson, he had been under a state-ordered quarantine since returning home on March 6. However, he was released from that order March 19. While he has not tested negative for the virus, the Centers for Disease Control has cleared him and medical officials said he is no longer a danger to others. 

“CDC guidelines allow for that when a person tests positive but is asymptomatic after the isolation period, and therefore likely not infectious,” Peterson said. 

Until considered negative, Jorgensen will continue to be counted in the number of infected in Southern Utah and the state. 

Statewide number update and first death

Undated photo illustration | Photo by
Zephy18/iStock/Getty Inages Plus, St. George News

As of 1 p.m. Sunday, the statewide number stated on the website of the Utah Department of Health stood at 181 COVID-19 cases. However, it still lists just Mark Jorgenson’s case in Southwest Utah and not the new case reported Saturday. 

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist who heads the COVID-19 response in the state, confirmed to St. George News that the case in Washington County is valid.

“The website just doesn’t reflect that case,” Dunn said. “That is a correct report.”

The website also correctly reflects the first death in Utah.

Dunn said the male patient above 60 years old was at Lakeview Hospital in Bountiful, Utah – about 11 miles north of downtown Salt Lake City. After acquiring the virus through travel, he was hospitalized on Friday and tested positive Saturday. He had an underlying medical condition.

“The loss of life is truly the worst part of this pandemic,” Dunn said, her voice dropping. “I wish there is more we could have done, but please know there are hundreds working day and night to make sure we are keeping the loss of life to a minimum.”

Dunn added that for those still not taking social distancing and self-isolation to heart, this should be a wake-up call.

“If you haven’t been taking these recommendations seriously, please do now,” Dunn said, adding that Utah can avoid measures seen in other parts of the country that have issued mandatory self-isolation.  “We’re relying on individuals to do their part so we can avoid that. Please stay in groups of less than 10, six feet apart. If you’re over 60 or have chronic conditions, you should avoid contact with others unless necessary.”

Romney, Lee go into quarantine

U.S. Senate candidate Mitt Romney speaks to reporters following his debate with Democrat Jenny Wilson, Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 9, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The entire Utah contingent in the U.S. Senate announced they will each be going into a 14-day self quarantine in Washington D.C., which precludes voting on the Senate floor and traveling.

Romney announced he has placed himself in self quarantine after he had been sitting next to Paul, R-Tenn., during recent sessions.

Paul announced Sunday that he had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Romney had expressed support for recent Senate measures to provide relief in the form of sick and family leave for those with the virus and their families, while Lee and Paul were two of the seven senators who voted against the measure in a 90-7 vote on March 18, citing its effect on small businesses.

Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), undated. | Photo courtesy of Mike Lee, St. George News

“Since Senator Romney sat next to Senator Paul for extended periods in recent days and consistent with CDC guidance, the attending physician has ordered him to immediately self-quarantine and not to vote on the Senate floor. He has no symptoms but will be tested,” the statement from Romney’s office said. “He urges members to pass a relief package as quickly as possible that provides assistance for families, workers, and small businesses.”

Lee announced in a statement on Twitter tat he is also going into a 14-day self-quarantine.

“As I have no symptoms or other risk factors, a COVID-19 test was not warranted. However, given the timing, proximity, and duration of my exposure to Sen. Paul, (my doctor) has directed me to self-quarantine for 14 days,” Lee said. “But I will continue to make sure Utah’s voice is heard as we shape the federal response to the Coronavirus through phone, text, email and whatever other means are available.”

Additional COVID-19 information resources

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