State says it’s willing to work with Southern Utah leaders on coronavirus risk level

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wears his face mask during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah on Thursday, April 9, 2020. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As Southern Utah officials are asking the state to allow the area to go into a low-risk, “yellow” phase of combating the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gary Herbert tried to strike a tone of unity in Salt Lake City during a Thursday press conference, saying he’s open to listening to requests of local officials. 

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert holds his face mask during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah on Thursday, April 9, 2020. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

However, Herbert cautioned that he didn’t want political squabbles to take place in Utah.

“We don’t want this to become political here. We’ve seen this nationally, but that’s not productive,” Herbert said, adding that Utahns need to know the crisis is not over. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

“We’re still in the middle of a crisis. We’re in a good fight and we’re winning. But my administration will continue to be responsive to inquiries and we’re always willing to find a better way,” he added. “This is when you find the true character of the people. We’re in this together. I think we’re going to have the opportunity in the next few weeks to go to yellow.”

Herbert has called the state’s Utah Leads Together plan a living document that is subject to change. To that end, the state issued a new recommendation late Wednesday that gyms and fitness centers that are open right now should maintain 10 feet between patrons. Herbert also said a third revision to the plan, a “3.0” should be expected in the coming days. 

Also Thursday, the Utah Department of Health released the first data on the exact rates of coronavirus cases in individual communities in Southern Utah. As to be expected, the higher populated cities of St. George and Cedar City were in the moderate range over the last two weeks, but so were Santa Clara and Ivins. 

Cities with a low rate included Washington City and Hurricane, with Enterprise and Beaver among cities with no cases in the last two weeks. 

Data from the Utah Department of Health shows the to case rates in the last two weeks in individual cities in Southern Utah.| Infographic by Chris Reed, Photo illustration by Pixabay, St. George News

On Wednesday, Washington County and St. George city leaders sent a second request to the state asking to be allowed to move into a lower restriction level to deal with the coronavirus after the first request was denied.

Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist and St. George Mayor Jon Pike cited the different impact of the virus and climate in the southern half of the state as opposed to the northern half, as well as what they referred to as a lowering rate of cases.

According to case reports by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, cases in Washington County alone went up 25% between Monday and Wednesday. However, SUPHD officials cited more people taking coronavirus tests, rather than a growing threat from the virus. 

Herbert bolstered that claim Thursday, saying any increase in cases doesn’t tell the whole story.

“It’s important to note we’ve increased our testing. There’s a correlation with testing. The actual rate has actually stayed pretty constant.”

On Thursday, the Global Health Institute at Harvard University published data showing that only nine states have enough testing to deal with present and future cases. Utah was one of them.   

Health officials both locally and statewide have said the real signs of loosening restrictions causing a problem won’t be as much an increase in cases as increased hospitalizations. In the last three days, the number of hospitalizations has remained at three among Southern Utah residents and is currently 95 statewide. 

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks at a March 12 COVID-19 coronavirus briefing at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo courtesy Utah Governor’s Office, St. George News

Asked about the possibility of Southern Utah moving to yellow ahead of the rest of the state, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn told St. George News she doesn’t have a problem with cities and counties in Southern Utah making the move as long as they are confident they are not seeing a rising trend of the reach of the virus.  

“It’s really important to take a local or regional approach. Local health districts can make their own judgments,” Dunn said. “I don’t have Washington County’s data at the top of my mind, but I hope they’re using data to make the right decision.”

Dunn also talked about new data from the Utah Department of Health showing that 59.2% of cases in Utah have come from contact with people in the household. While some might say that is a sign that just staying home may have caused more cases, Dunn said it actually shows that by social distancing, people were able to avoid getting the virus from unknown sources – or giving it. 

“It’s a misinterpretation of the data,” Dunn said. “What these numbers are pointing to is social distancing measures. As we open up, people will have exposures outside the home so it’s important to wear masks.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 7, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 132 (4 new), with 90 recoveries (4 new).

  • Washington County: 95 
  • Iron County: 28 (1 new) 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0
  • Unspecified County: 3 (3 new)

Deaths: 3

  • Washington County: 2 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 3

Tested: 7,376 (+161 new tests)

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

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