First cases of community spread of COVID-19 seen in Washington County; more testing now available

Undated photo illustration of the SARS-CoV-2, or COVID-19, virus. | Photo by Pete Linforth/Pixabay, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The first cases of community spread, or person-to-person transmission, of COVID-19 have taken place in Washington County according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

Undated photo illustration | Photo by
Jarun/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

At the same time, the criteria for those receiving tests in Southern Utah has been expanded, allowing more people to be tested for the virus.

It was announced Wednesday that two unidentified adults in Washington County tested positive for the virus, both through community spread. That brought the Southern Utah total to seven residents infected with the virus, including one positive test in Iron County.

On Wednesday, the Utah Public Health Department also reported one visitor to the southern area who tested positive, bringing the total number in Southern Utah to eight.

As has been the case recently, the health department has not disclosed the exact cities and genders of those who have been infected for privacy and confidentiality reasons.

Until now, each of the five previous cases of COVID-19 infection among people in Southern Utah have been from travel overseas.

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said now that there have been the first occurrences of transmission from person to person in Southern Utah, people should increase their efforts toward social distancing and avoiding groups of 10 or more.

“One good way to look at it, everyone should pretend they are infected and think how they wouldn’t infect others,” Heaton said. “Especially those at risk.”

Across the Utah border, the mayor of Mesquite, Nevada, reported the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 virus in a resident there.

In a dose of good news for both residents wanting access to testing and health officials wanting a better idea of the scope of the problem, Heaton said more test kits have become available in Southern Utah. Because of that, the criteria for those who will receive tests has expanded.

“There are more testing supplies and requirements for testing have been loosened up,” Heaton said. 

Up until now, testing has been prioritized toward the elderly, medical workers and those negative for flu tests exhibiting symptoms.

An image of the coronavirus shows the distinctive shape that gives the virus its name. “Corona” comes from the Latin word for “crown” or “halo.” | Photo courtesy the Centers for Disease Control, St. George News

Now, those merely exhibiting the main symptoms of COVID-19 infection – fever, dry cough, fatigue and shortness of breath – will likely be tested after they consult with doctors.

“People with those symptoms will have a better chance of getting tested now, regardless of other qualifications,” Heaton said.  

People should be especially cognizant if their overall symptoms include moderate to high shortness of breath. While the other symptoms can be attributed to other ailments like the flu, shortness of breath is a symptom exclusive to COVID-19 infection.

“The breathing one is a big part,” Heaton said. “Shortness of breath is a hallmark symptom.” 

More testing will have a downside. Heaton said to expect an increase in the number of tests that come back positive now that more people will be able to be tested.

As for the rest of the state, Utah broke the 300 mark for the number of cases in the state. The Utah Department of Health reports 346 cases statewide as of Wednesday afternoon with one death. At this time last week, the total number of cases in Utah hovered around 50.

Undated photo illustration of hand washing. | Photo by Diese lizenzfreien Fotos/Pixabay, St. George News

That number does not include the two new cases in Washington County. Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist heading the Utah response against the virus, said the local health departments usually update their numbers first and the state reflects it in their total reflected on the next day.

The crux of the cases in the state – 72% – have been in Salt Lake and Summit counties to the north. On Wednesday, Summit County officials issued the first shelter-in-place orders in the state, directing residents not to leave home except for essential needs from Friday until May 1, and for visitors to the county to leave “as soon as possible.”

With the Southern Nevada Health District reporting 249 cases with six deaths in Clark County, Nevada just to the south of St. George, Southern Utah has thus far been spared the proliferation of cases that are taking place in other parts of the state and nation.

And health officials don’t have an explanation.

“I don’t have a specific answer to that other than we expected to see the brunt of cases in Salt Lake because it is an urban area and Summit because it is a tourist area,” Dunn said. “But we certainly want to be prepared in Southern Utah.”

COVID-19 information resources

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