Southern Utah sees highest number of COVID-19 cases in a day so far; Numbers double in San Juan County

A novel coronavirus test can detect the presence of 2019-nCoV or COVID-19 virus in clinical specimens. Undated photo. | Photo by Anya Ivanova/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah had its highest number of new coronavirus cases in one day on Monday, and all of the positive tests could be pinpointed to Washington County. However, the spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department said there is no cause for extra concern.

The drive-through coronavirus testing set up at the River Road InstaCare in St. George, Utah, on April 2, 2020. | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

David Heaton said the increase may be attributed to increased testing and not to a lack of social distancing or any other event.

“There is a lot more testing going on, and there are no specific events or hot spots related to these,” Heaton said, adding that there have been around 1,300 tests done in Southern Utah since Wednesday – a 29% increase.

As of Monday, 117 people have had the virus in Southern Utah, including 85 in Washington County. Of those 117 people, 77 have recovered and four are currently hospitalized.

While some might argue more testing is the reason for any increase in numbers, others wonder if more testing results in more positives, are there more people with the virus locally who aren’t being diagnosed? 

“Possibly, but asymptomatic or mild enough symptoms where they wouldn’t have sought testing if not for positive close contacts or relaxed testing criteria,” Heaton said. 

Images of less social distancing around Southern Utah over the past weekend, including at the local state parks, are also fresh in many minds. 

The expert leading the health side of the state’s effort against the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic expressed concern about the images of crowds not practicing social distancing at Southern Utah state parks, as well as other instances from the first weekend with relaxed guidelines in the state. 

Crowds gather at Gunlock State Park en masse following Utah easing visitation restrictions on its state parks due to the coronavirus, Washington County, Utah, May 2, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

“We have seen reports of some clusters not wearing masks and crowds in the parks that we don’t want to see,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. However, Dunn added because of the 14-day gestation period of the virus, it will be at least a week before it can be determined if the reduced social distancing is causing more coronavirus cases. 

“That impact on COVID cases, we’re not going to know it for a week or two,” Dunn said. 

As far as the number of new cases, Monday was a positive day for the state compared to Southern Utah.

A day after one of the highest one-day totals of new cases in Utah, there was just a 2.7% increase in new cases statewide Monday. There has especially been a decrease seen in community spread, where people get the virus from someone they don’t know. Dunn said that figure stands at 11% at this point.  

However, San Juan County, where cases have doubled in just the last week, remains a concern. 

Local state parks – from Gunlock to Sand Hollow to Quail Creek – had to close their gates this weekend

The crowds were especially apparent at Gunlock Falls, where people impeded the rescue of an injured Las Vegas woman who hit a rock jumping into the pools. 

An Arizona Department of Safety vehicle on the northbound Interstate 15 at the Utah Port of Entry Wednesday, March 11, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Both those on the scene and authorities mentioned a large number of out-of-state license plates in the full parking lots and along Gunlock Drive. Dunn said the influx of out-of-state visitors is something being watched, but not necessarily a cause of action as of yet. 

“Across the U.S., there’s cases of being from hot spot going to surrounding states, but we don’t have any plans to prevent tourists from coming in from out of state,” Dunn said. “It is something we can keep an eye on.”

The concern some have is those from nearby states with heavier COVID-19 restrictions like Arizona, Nevada and California could see Utah’s reduced restrictions as an “open” sign. All three states have indicated they may loosen some of their own restrictions in the next two weeks. 

Previously, those traveling from other states to Utah were asked to voluntarily fill out a travel declaration when arriving from another state. At first, a “virtual gate” was used to alert traveling motorists, but that was terminated after three days when people throughout Southern Utah who were not traveling received the messages

On Friday, the voluntary travel declaration was ended as Gov. Gary Herbert’s coronavirus executive orders expired and those traveling from out-of-state are no longer being asked to declare their health when entering Utah.

Heaton said locals may want to just look for alternative means of recreation with the influx of tourists to state parks, and especially national parks as they reopen in the next few days

“Not everyone is respectful of social distancing guidelines,” Heaton said. “Park managers are able to curtail overcrowding somewhat with early closures. We would encourage local residents to seek less crowded areas for recreation.”

The real impact of the ease in restrictions will likely not be apparent in the case totals for as many as 14 days. At that point, the governor is expected to review the situation and decide whether to continue the moderate “orange” phase, move to reduce more restrictions or move back into the full restrictions of the “red” phase.

Dunn said on Tuesday, the governor’s task forces plan to finalize the exact metrics for moving back into the more restrictive red recommendations that had been in place from March 27 to May 1.    

Dunn said the main criteria will be based on hospital capacity, the extent of contact tracing and an increase in the daily rate of new cases.

We want to be sure we’re never coming anywhere near to reaching our hospital capacity,” Dunn said.

It is not just the health experts that the governor has to weigh, but also economic and other experts, she added. 

“We know we have to balance the health experts with what other experts say,” Dunn said. “The governor has to balance that.”

Doubling of cases in San Juan County

On the eastern boundary of the five counties that constitute those in the Southwest Utah Public Health Department lies San Juan County, which has seen its cases double in just the last week to a total of 116.

Korene Atene, a certified nursing assistant with the Monument Valley Health Center, gets information from people lined up to get tested for COVID-19 outside of the center in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, Utah, April 16, 2020.
| Photo by Kristin Murphy/The Deseret News via the Associated Press, St. George News

Dunn said most of the increase has been within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, which is technically sovereign and has its own enforcement and health departments. However, Dunn said the Utah Department of Health is deploying mobile teams focussing on additional testing. 

There are currently no answers as to why cases have risen so quickly in San Juan County. 

“We don’t have any indication what started it, we’ve just seen a spike,” Dunn said.

However, she added that unlike the rest of Southern Utah, the increase in cases isn’t just being attributed to more testing.

“That spike is a true spike,” Dunn said. “True, there may have been cases before we missed as testing has expanded, but that spike is real.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 4, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 117, with 77  recoveries.

  • Washington County: 85 (9 new)
  • Iron County: 26 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 2

  • Washington County: 1
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 4

Tested: 6,931 (+830)

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

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