‘That advice still holds’; Coronavirus expert warns Southern Utahns to stay vigilant, says another wave is coming

People gather atop the Dixie Sugarloaf, also known as "Dixie Rock" to watch the F-35A jet flyover in St. George, Utah, April 30, 2020. More people are going outside and stretching their legs, and social distancing, since Utah moved to a lower coronavirus alert status. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As Southern Utah takes a breath with the reduction in coronavirus risk level statewide, the state epidemiologist has advice for local residents: stay vigilant. 

Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist from the Utah Department of Health, speaks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Utah State Capitol Thursday, April 9, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah.| Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

“The key to preventing additional spread is staying home if you have symptoms and practice social distancing if you don’t,” Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said. “Even though were opening pieces of our economy, that advice still holds.”

Utah officially transferred over to the moderate “orange” level of recommended restrictions at midnight Friday, and restaurants throughout the area – from the boulevard in St. George to Main Street in Cedar City – were opening their doors to customers for the first time since the governor ordered sit-down service closed in late March. 

Crowds also flocked to places like Sand Hollow State Park, Gunlock Reservoir and Quail Creek State Park – all three of which had to close their gates Friday afternoon because of too many visitors

With that, Dunn had another warning for Southern Utah: Fall is coming. 

Dunn is all but certain that, like the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, there will be a second wave of the virus this fall.

“We are anticipating a second surge in cases to coincide with flu season,” said Dunn, who added local governments and the state will have to weigh at that point whether to return to the stay at home recommendations and restrictions of the last two months. “The challenge for society will be whether we need social distancing restrictions in the fall. That will be something we will have to weigh.”

Southern Utah passed another milestone besides the transfer to orange Friday: moving past the century mark for coronavirus cases.

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported three additional positive COVID-19 tests Friday, all in Washington County. That brings the number of coronavirus cases in Southern Utah to 101 since the first positive test in the area was reported on March 21.

Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Illustration of virus by Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, St. George News

For now, the Department of Health is confident tracking and tracing of those who have the virus will be key to keeping Utah from having to go back into a red coronavirus alert sooner than later. 

To that end, Dunn said today the department deployed its “strike team” for the first time to a residential facility in Utah County. Dunn said the department will use strike teams consisting of doctors, nurses and medical experts to go after specific hot spots identified through either the department or tracking from the  “Healthy Together” app

The team tests everyone in a hot spot for the virus and treats those who have it. In the case of the home for those with intellectual disabilities where the team was deployed this week, 15 of 40 residents and nine staff members tested positive for the virus.  

Caution on antibodies tests

Dunn said antibody tests are now available for Utah residents who have them ordered through their physician.

Volunteers at the Red Cliffs Mall testing site stand ready to test participants for COVID-19, St. George, Utah, April 22, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

But before residents see this as a way to see if they have had the virus, Dunn expressed caution.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about what a positive antibody test means, so there’s a lot of caution,” Dunn said.

Early on in the pandemic, antibody tests were seen as a way to see if those who have not had the symptoms of the COVID-19 virus may have already had it. 

Since then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released guidance that a positive antibody test may not indicate a person has already had the virus or are immune from it. 

As it is a “novel” or new virus that hadn’t been diagnosed before November of last year, the guidance from health departments and health experts is evolving.  

There has also been speculation that the virus may have already moved through places like Southern Utah. However, Dunn and other medical experts say there is nothing conclusive either way. 

Some Southern Utah residents have told St. George News they were ill with similar symptoms to the coronavirus in November, December and January. 

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

However, Washington and Iron counties had a large outbreak of the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, in the same time period. This was reported by St. George News in January

According to WebMD, the key differences between the symptoms between RSV and COVID-19 are RSV comes with a stuffy nose and coughs are more “wet” with mucus than the dry coronavirus coughs. There is also more sneezing and nasal discharge with RSV.

Nevertheless, some readers have reported to St. George News testing positive for the antibodies of COVID-19.

Officially, the first positive test in Southern Utah was on March 21, but David Heaton with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department said it is possible that the virus was here before that. 

“Quite possible,” Heaton said, who like Dunn cautioned that the antibody tests may not be fully informative as to whether that was the case. “There are no indications until we start getting more antibody testing data.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 1, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 101, with 69 recoveries.

  • Washington County: 71 (3 new)
  • Iron County: 24 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 2

  • Washington County: 1
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 4

Tested: 6,101

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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