State refuses request to lower COVID-19 threat level for southwest Utah; 1 new death in Washington County

ST. GEORGE — A request recently sent to the Governor’s Office to lower the coronavirus threat level from orange to yellow for Washington County and the surrounding area received a “no” from the Utah Health Department Monday.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert holds up the “Utah Leads Together Plan 2.0” while speaking during a press conference with legislative, community, and business leaders at the Utah State Capitol Friday, April 17, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Jeffrey D. Allred/Deseret News/Pool, via Associated Press, St. George News

Last Friday Gov. Gary Hebert ordered the state to move from a red (high risk) threat level to an orange (moderate risk) level through May 15. Instead of the moderate risk level, southwest Utah officials asked the governor to allow Washington, Iron and Kane counties to go to yellow, or low risk.

“We really believed we were ready because our numbers are so much lower than those of the more populated counties and our weather is so different,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike said, adding that temperatures in Southern Utah are reaching 90 degrees or more daily now while northern Utah may not see that for another month.

“We’re a little disappointed but not completely surprised,” Pike said.

The move to lower the COVID-19 threat level for Washington and its neighboring counties was supported by various county commissioners and many city mayors, along with Dr. David Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

“Although we feel we’re in a strong position to keep our community working while protecting those at high risk with the yellow guidelines, our health department will continue to encourage our residents to follow the Governor’s orange phase directives until otherwise notified,” David Heaton, a spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, told St. George News in a text Tuesday.

The letter marking the state’s denial of the county’s request to go to a yellow threat level was sent out Monday and officially received by the Washington County Commission through the Southwest Utah Public Health Department Tuesday.

The letter from General Jefferson Burton, acting director of the Utah Department of Utah, to the Washington County Commission refusing a request to go to a yellow threat level for the COVID-19 virus in southwest Utah | Image courtesy of the Washington County Commission, St. George News | Click to enlarge.

“After careful review and consultation with the Governor’s Office, we disapprove the issuance Washington and Iron Counties being changed to a level Yellow/Low Risk beginning May 1, 2020,” the letter, signed by General Jefferson Burton, acting director of the Utah Department of Health, states.

Washington County Commissioners Dean Cox and Gil Almquist also voiced their disappointment over the refusal.

“We felt we were already yellow here,” Almquist said. “Our people need to move on.”

Almquist said the commission met with the county attorney and others and reviewed the guidelines for the orange and yellow phases of the governor’s plan and found people in Southwest Utah were largely conducting themselves as if they were under a yellow, low-risk threat level. Because of this, county and municipal leaders wanted the threat declaration for the region to match what they felt was already taking place.

“We think it would reflect reality a little more,” Pike said.

Cox said he would have liked to wait for the county to submit a request for a lowered risk designation in order to see how the orange level panned out. He nonetheless chose to support the subsequently denied request.

“People are coming to Washington County and people in Washington County need to get back to work,” Cox said.

“I personally feel that individuals such as myself, who are immunocompromised or are in a higher risk category, that we are the ones that are most responsible for our behavior and it’s incumbent on us to ensure our own safety,” he said.

Cox’s immune system was compromised earlier this year due to undergoing cancer treatment and a bone marrow transplant.

Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, St. George, Utah, March 20, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Commissioner Victor Iverson, who has been vocal in his disapproval of how the state has handled COVID-19, said he was “a little upset” of the county’s request being “so flippantly disregarded” by the Governor’s Office.

“We’ve basically burned our economy to the ground,” Iverson said. “And we continue to deny people their rights to live their lives as they see fit. I was quite hopeful and optimistic. We’re well, well below what the rest of the state’s at. This state is a big state, why should we be treated like Salt Lake City?”

Iverson went as far as to say the governor owed Utahns an apology for the havoc the state’s response to COVID-19 has wrought on the economy.

“It’s really sad how the citizens are being treated,” Iverson said.

Part of Herbert’s plan to deal with the pandemic allows for separate regions within the state to be designated at various risk levels based on the individual circumstances in those regions.

However, Pike said a reason the Governor’s Office likely denied the request for southwest Utah was because it wanted to see how going to the orange/moderate risk level statewide worked out first.

“It is extremely important for the entire state of Utah to be cautious during this initial reopening phrase, especially for tourism-based economies such as yours,” Burton wrote in the state’s reply to the county’s request. “Following the strict guidelines set forth by the Governor’s “Utah Leads Together Plan 2.0” for the orange phase until May 15, 2020, is critical for everyone.”

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

Despite the initial rejection, Pike and Almquist said a new request to lower the region’s virus threat level may be sent to the Governor’s Office in the days leading up to May 15.

On Monday, case numbers for COVID-19 across Southwest Utah reached 117, with nine of those being new cases – the highest rise in cases for the region to date. An additional four new cases were reported Tuesday, along with a new death in Washington County.

“We are saddened to announce the death of one of our residents who passed away May 3 in a local hospital,” the Southwest Utah Public Health Department stated on its Facebook page. “The patient was a male over age 50 who had COVID-19 along with other underlying health conditions. Out of respect for family privacy, we will not be releasing any further details regarding this case.”

As of Tuesday, the number of COVID-19 cases across Southwest Utah stands at 121, with 78 of those cases being “recovered,” three currently hospitalized, and three deaths.

Almquist said any death is tragic and should be mourned, but also said the overall number of COVID-19 cases shouldn’t be a determining factor in what a region’s virus threat level is.

“It’s not the number of positive cases that we get,” Almquist said. “What is important is the number of hospitalizations and deaths … and not just case numbers.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 5, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 121, with 78  recoveries.

  • Washington County: 89 (4 new)
  • Iron County: 26 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 3

  • Washington County: 2 (1 new)
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 3

Tested: 6,931 (+0)

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

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