State epidemiologist: Recent coronavirus cases in Washington County the result of local transmission

Cars line up for the Intermountain Medical drive-thru coronavirus testing site at 376 E. 500 South in St. George, Utah, on May 11, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health said Monday that recent coronavirus cases in Washington County and St. George are coming from a local outbreak, not because of an influx of visitors from out of state.  

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah, May 11, 2020. | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

“We’ve had a couple of localized outbreaks there,” Dr. Angela Dunn told St. George News. “We don’t want to move a region into a lower risk level like yellow while cases are increasing.”

Dunn indicated that, to her understanding, Southern Utah has dropped its request for the state to reduce the recommended restriction level from moderate orange to low-risk yellow, a request which had been previously rejected for a second time by Gov. Gary Herbert on Friday

However, St. George Mayor Jon Pike said the drive to reduce the risk level to yellow in Southern Utah is not being dropped.

“I’m not aware anyone down here withdrew that request,” he said. 

The city of St. George, through its spokesperson, later released the following statement to St. George News:

As far as we are aware, our request to go to yellow, as submitted through the Southern Utah Public Health Department to the Utah Department of Health, has not been withdrawn. We will continue to work through our local and state public health departments.

Reports of places like Gunlock and Sand Hollow state parks being filled with vehicles from out of state has led to speculation that the rise in cases has come from those traveling across the border from Nevada, Arizona and California, which all have stricter mandatory restrictions than the recently lowered voluntary restrictions in Utah.

Cars line up for the Intermountain Medical drive-thru coronavirus testing site at 376 E. 500 South, St. George, Utah, May 11, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“We haven’t found that to be true yet,” Dunn said, referring to the notion that travelers are spreading the virus. 

Utah Department of Health statistics say around 60.4% of people who have contracted the virus statewide have contracted the virus from somewhere they know within the state. The health department is not making such demographic statistics available. 

There were six new cases reported Monday and 32 in the last three days, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Most have been reported within Washington County, with cases in St. George leading the way, according to the Utah Department of Health. 

The district is leaving more cases unspecified, but thus far every unspecified case has later been attributed to Washington County.

Of the 130 cases in Washington County, 26-31 of those cases have been in the last three days. There have been no new positive tests reported from anywhere in Southern Utah outside Washington County in the same time period. 

For the second straight day, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported no new tests. The department attributes that more to a delay in reporting rather than to no one actually being tested.

There were no cars, just awaiting health workers, at the TestUtah coronavirus drive-thru testing site at Red Cliffs Mall, St. George, Utah, May 11, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

At the Intermountain Medical drive-thru testing location on 500 South in St. George, a line of 12 cars stretching nearly a block led to one of two drive-thru testing sites in Washington County early Monday afternoon. Tests being conducted there were limited to those showing one of the symptoms of COVID-19, which include a dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing or decreased smell or taste. 

The TestUtah site at Red Cliffs Mall, which allows anyone to get a test regardless of symptoms, was moved Monday to a new site in the back of the mall. At the time St. George News visited it, no one was being tested there.

The rising rate of positive tests in Washington County is an outlier compared to the rest of the state, which was at 1.8% on Monday according to the Utah Department of Health. In comparison, Southern Utah has seen a 22.3% increase in cases in the last three days. 

That said, Dunn placed doubt on not only Southern Utah going yellow by the end of the week but the entire state. She said while the state as a whole has stabilized, she wants to see a bigger reduction in the case rate. When Herbert reduced the state’s risk restriction level to orange on May 1, the governor said that decision would be reviewed by this Friday. 

“We’ve definitely maintained a plateau,” Dunn said. “We’re looking for a decline, and we haven’t seen that yet.”

Dunn acknowledges the interests of the business community and residents for more businesses to open up, but she warned opening up too quick could have an even bigger impact on the economy.

“We can’t separate the public health crisis from the economic crisis,” Dunn said. “We can’t improve the economy if people are afraid to go out.” 

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 11, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 170 (6 new), with 95 recoveries (4 new).

  • Washington County: 130 (1 new, plus 3 previously unspecified)
  • Iron County: 29 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0
  • Unspecified location: 5 (5 new)

Deaths: 3

  • Washington County: 2 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 3

Tested: 7,732 (0 new tests)

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

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