State concerned about rise in Washington County COVID-19 cases, local officials not as alarmed

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 — State officials are reviewing an increase in coronavirus cases in Southern Utah and expressing concern – especially for Washington County where cases have gone up 50% in the last week. However, a spokesperson for the health agency that oversees Southern Utah said there is no cause for alarm.

The main entrance to Dixie Regional Medical Center on in St. George, Utah on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

As of Wednesday afternoon, in the last 72 hours, someone in Washington County has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus every two hours. There have been 36 cases in Washington County since Monday, including the fourth person in Southern Utah to die from the virus.

In all, there have been 41 new coronavirus cases in Southern Utah since Monday and 260 overall. 

Much of that has come within the city boundaries of St. George, as the Utah Department of Health has started releasing data specific to small areas and cities. Of the 156 cases in St. George, as of Wednesday, more than 100 have been in the last two weeks. 

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, told St. George News that Southern Utah got the attention of the governor’s coronavirus task force, which reviewed the data from the area Wednesday morning. She said it was determined the hike in the local case rate cannot just be linked to an increase in the number and availability of testing.  

Data from the Utah Department of Health shows the to case rates in the last two weeks in individual cities in Southern Utah as of May 20, 2020. Arrows indicate whether a city has moved up a rate tier, gone down or stayed the same. Click to enlarge. | Infographic by Chris Reed, Photo illustration by Pixabay, St. George News

“It doesn’t seem to be linked to increase in testing. We’re seeing an increase in the percent positive as well,” Dunn said. “There is the potential for more of a surge in Southern Utah. At this point, we’re asking the community there to be a little more diligent about social distancing.”

On Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health marked St. George as the fifth hot spot in the state with a high rate of the virus in the last 14 days. The other four are the Navajo Reservation area of San Juan County, Salt Lake City, Provo and Wasatch County.

Outside of St. George, which accounts for 60% of the cases in Southern Utah, cities and small areas that have had 12 or more cases have included 32 in Washington City, 28 in Cedar City, 17 in Hurricane/LaVerkin, 14 in Garfield/Kane counties and 12 in Ivins City/Santa Clara.

While it took 48 days for Washington County to reach 100 cases, it has taken just 10 days to reach just above 200.

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said the increase in cases is not as important an indicator of where the fight is against the virus. He added there is no reason for anyone to be panicked over the increasing number of those with the virus in the area.  

We’re not any more alarmed or concerned than we have been. There have been no nursing home outbreaks and we have not been able to identify any clusters,” Heaton said. “We’re concerned about any case we have, but the hospital curve is more important for us. Most cases here don’t involve hospitalization. It’s a reflection of the robust testing efforts.”

The number of hospitalizations has remained four for the last week. In that time the number went down by one on Tuesday, when it was announced one patient died of the virus, and went up Wednesday when one additional resident was hospitalized, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. 

A map by the Utah Department of Health showing the density of those who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in the last 14 days as of May 20, 2020. Click to enlarge| Map courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News

According to the Utah Department of Health, the deceased was a man over the age of 65 with an underlying health condition in Washington County. No other details were provided. He was the fourth person to die of the coronavirus, the third in Washington County, since the first positive test of the new virus in Southern Utah on March 21.   

There have also been 39 people in the five-county area who have recovered from the virus in the last three days. 

“That’s the bright spot we want to emphasize,” Heaton said. “We’re cautious. We want to do all we can to protect high-risk individuals.”

Of the 260 who have gotten the virus in Southern Utah since late March, 173 have recovered. Nearly all who have the virus now are recovering outside of any hospital. 

Governor: We all need to take responsibility

Gov. Gary Herbert expressed concern Wednesday about those seen in area markets, stores and restaurants not wearing face coverings when they are within 6 feet of other people. 

“We’re not back to normal. We’re in the middle of an emergency still,” Herbert told St. George News. “All of us have a responsibility to do our part. This won’t work if people don’t take part. When you go to retail outlets, you should be wearing face coverings. I know it’s inconvenient, but it’s the right thing for us to do.”

The governor also responded to the continuing protests about recommendations to take precautions concerning the virus, including a protest drive across Washington County planned to start 5:30 p.m. Thursday from Ivins City Hall to Hurricane. 

Description of the different versions of Gov. Gary Herbert’s “Utah Leads Together” coronavirus plans. | Photo courtesy Utah Governor’s Office, St. George News

“Utah has been ranked among the states with the least amount of restrictions, so I don’t know what message they’re trying to send,” Herbert said. 

According to a study released by financial research firm WalletHub on Tuesday, Utah had the fifth-fewest restrictions of any state to businesses concerning the coronavirus and ranked first for the least amount of restrictions in regard to the requirement to wear masks, reopening of nonessential businesses and reopening of child-care programs. 

“Utah is one of those places you won’t see people approached by a police officer to wear a mask,” Heaton said. “We allow people to make their own decisions.”

State introduces 3.0 version of coronavirus plan 

If there is a source of agreement between state and local officials, it’s that efforts to combat the virus have shifted toward focusing on those with a high risk of getting and dying from the virus – while letting everyone else return to some sense of normalcy by going back to work and their daily activities.

Guidelines for high-risk individuals from the “Utah Leads Together 3.0” plan. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News

To that end, Herbert released the third version of his coronavirus plan on Wednesday, called the “Utah Leads Together 3.0.”

If the first version of the plan introduced the first measures to prevent the spread of the virus, and the 2.0 version introduced the red-orange-yellow-green risk levels, the 3.0 version introduces specific guidelines for high-risk individuals as well as a roadmap to economic recovery. 

“It’s all of our responsibility to prevent spread to these high-risk individuals,” Herbert said. “That includes wearing masks and staying home when sick.”

The new plan specifies exactly who is classified as high-risk and nine guidelines for those individuals to take. 

Those guidelines include wearing masks at all times in public settings, staying home as much as possible, limiting visits to family and friends without urgent need and not attending gatherings outside their household. 

High-risk individuals are defined in the plan as people fitting one or more of the following categories:

  • Aged 65 years and older.
  • Live in a nursing home or long-term care facility.
  • With chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma.
  • With serious heart conditions.
  • With diabetes, kidney or liver disease.
  • Immunocompromised – Including those who smoke, under cancer treatment, have bone marrow or organ transplants, or HIV or AIDS.
  • Severely obese, (with a body mass index above 40).

As far as getting the state’s economy back on track, among the recommendations of the plan are to get employees who were furloughed in the initial stages of the crisis back to work as soon as possible. As for those who were laid-off, it looks at an increase in training like one-year master’s programs as well as a boost to infrastructure projects statewide. 

“There’s reasons to be optimistic,” Herbert said of the state’s economic outlook, citing a recent Pew Charitable Trusts study that listed Utah and Minnesota as the two states best prepared to recover economically from the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’re going to accelerate economic opportunities and open up the economy. We’re going to be as good as we were before if not better.”

Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, was part of devising the plan. She said while there has been a battle over the balance between health and economic needs during the pandemic, both rely on the paying customers of Utah to be confident in leaving their homes without fear again.  

There is a lot said about this being an economic or a health crisis. This is a crisis of confidence,” Gochnour said. “You need to be confident to go out. It doesn’t matter what the government says. The economist in me would say the  link to following health guidance and the economy is very tight.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 20, 2020, one-week increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 260 (80 new in one week), with 173 recoveries (66 new).

  • Washington County: 218 (73 new)
  • Iron County: 36 (7 new)
  • Garfield County: 3 
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 4 (1 new)

  • Washington County: 3 (1 new) 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 4 

Tested: 9,711 (1,294 new tests)

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

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