Medical experts differ on whether Southern Utah is ready to lower coronavirus alert level

A sign saluting medical workers outside Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As the state moves closer to the Friday deadline for the governor to reevaluate the recommended coronavirus restriction level for residents and businesses, there is a difference of opinion among medical experts as to whether Southern Utah – and especially Washington County – is ready to move to a lower risk level. 

Detail of the phases and color-coding of the “Utah Leads Together 2.0” plan, designed to gradually reopen the state economy, on April 17, 2020. | Photo courtesy Utah Office of the Governor, St. George News

All of Utah has remained at the moderate orange coronavirus threat level since it was lowered by Gov. Gary Herbert on May 1

Since then, Southern Utah leaders and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department have put in two requests to lower the threat level just for the local area to yellow, which would recommend the maximum amount of people in a public place to be raised from 20 to 50 and allow all businesses to open. However, both requests have been rejected as the state has cited an increasing case rate. 

David Heaton, spokesman for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said the request is still active. 

“We still feel like we’re in a strong position to continue to request yellow,” Heaton said. “Every positive test we take seriously, but cases we saw are still not significantly large numbers to be concerned about.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, has said the coronavirus risk level should not be lowered in an area that has its case rate going up. She also said Wednesday that while some individual areas are ready to move to a yellow level, her preference is for the statewide orange level to continue this weekend. 

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

Dunn acknowledges, though, that the ultimate decision lies with elected officials, and she could only provide her own recommendations. 

“Every county has their ability to make their request,” Dunn told St. George News. “From my perspective, I provide public health expertise, but the ultimate decision is with a group of people and the governor.”

At the same time, Dunn said there has to be a balance between the economic and public health risks.

“We never want to put lives at risk unnecessarily for other people to get back to normal. We need to balance that,” she said. 

Dunn also put forth the possibility that the rest of Southern Utah could potentially move from the moderate orange risk level to the low-risk yellow, while Washington County – which has seen the sharpest gain for case rate in the state over the last week – might remain at the orange level. 

As far as Southern Utah is concerned, there has not been a new case outside Washington County since May 7. All 48 new coronavirus cases since then have been confined to Washington County for a 36.4% increase. 

Chart from shows the weekly case increase in Washington County. | Chart by, St. George News

There was a new hospitalization of a local resident reported Wednesday and nine additional cases, all in Washington County. 

Heaton attributes the greater population of Washington County as the reason why there continue to be cases there, while the rest of Southern Utah has remained quiet. 

“The bulk of active cases in Washington matches demographically to population and increased testing,” Heaton said. 

The department doesn’t provide specific county-by-county testing statistics, but there have been 1,041 additional tests in Southern Utah, according to the department’s latest report. With 48 new cases, that means 4.6% of the tests are coming back as positive, which is above the 2.3% average rate statewide and far above the 1.3% average of positive tests in Southern Utah before May 7. 

Much of the boost in Washington County has come from St. George. In the last 14 days, the city of St. George has been in the same moderately-high case rate as Provo, Utah, according to the Utah Department of Health. 

There are other medical experts locally who express more alarm about the increasing case rate in Washington County. Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, said the hospital came close over the last week to having to activate its BLU-MED tents designed to handle additional emergency room patients because of an influx of possible coronavirus patients. For now, the tents remain empty. 

Interior of BLU-MED tent at Dixie Regional Medical Center, St. George, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Dixie Regional Medical Center, St. George News

“We have seen an increase in cases and in the percent positive and that is a concern on a couple of levels. If the rate of positive cases is increasing, that is increasing the possible spread to other people,” Carroll said. “We have seen a bump in hospitalizations. It’s not enough to say it’s sustained. I hope it is not.”

If there is anything the medical experts agree on, it’s that regardless of the color of risk level, those at high-risk – including those over 60 and those with underlying medical issues – should be at the highest state of alert for the near future. 

“If we were to go to yellow, we encourage anyone over 60 and high-risk to keep practicing safety measures like they were in red,” Heaton said. 

Outside of Washington County, the rest of Southern Utah has been seeing a sharp reduction in cases. 

The last case in Iron County was on May 7 and has had only four total cases this month. There have been no cases in Garfield or Kane counties, and Heaton said there aren’t even suspected cases in those counties at this moment. Meanwhile, Beaver County remains a coronavirus oasis, with no COVID-19 positive tests recorded since the pandemic began. 

“There is a possibility for much of Southern Utah to move to yellow, while Washington County remains in orange,” Heaton said. “We think the whole district can manage quite well but, we’re fine if individual counties were moved as well.”

Heaton did confirm the assertion by Dunn on Tuesday that a clear majority of the case increase in Washington County has come from local transmission, rather than an increasing amount of out-of-state visitors. 

“There’s been some concern about out of towners, but so far, a majority of contact tracing is from a close contact in some way,” Heaton said. “So far, it appears traveler influx it not showing up as a factor though.”

Many who have had virus are virus-free

Besides the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths, there is another number on the rise concerning the coronavirus: recoveries.

Of the 180 local residents who have tested positive for the virus, 107 are now virus-free, according to the SWUPHD. Most of those recoveries took place in a home, rather than a hospital room. 

While the percentage of those recovered in Southern Utah has lowered in the last week with the increasing number of cases, the recoveries are a sign that the virus has been just a temporary setback for those who have had it locally. 

“It’s extremely hopeful,” Heaton said. “It does hit some people harder, but for others, this is a hopeful sign that if they do get tested positive, they could recover.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 13, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 180 (9 new), with 107 recoveries (4 new).

  • Washington County: 145 (9 new)
  • Iron County: 29 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 3

  • Washington County: 2 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 4 (1 new)

Tested: 8417 (188 new tests)

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

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