Going green? Utah health officials at odds with political leaders over severity of coronavirus

Rendering of the COVID-19 form of the coronavirus. | Photo by berkozel, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A sharp divide has developed between local political leaders and health officials over the next steps to take in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Medical personnel administer COVID-19 tests at the Intermountain drive-through coronavirus testing site at the 400 East Campus of Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on May 30, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The state’s health department said Wednesday that all of Utah is now seeing a surge in the spread of the coronavirus and should, at the very least, maintain its current yellow risk level. However, a state commission of political appointees recommended Wednesday that the state move into a modified version of the green, lowest risk level. 

It will be up to Gov. Gary Herbert to decide by a Friday deadline whether to take the recommendation of the political leaders to open up the state further or follow the cautionary approach of the health department. 

Utah Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, who represents Cedar City, told St. George News he agrees with moving to green this Friday, saying it should be up to individuals, rather than the government, to decide what measures people should take concerning the virus. 

“You can’t legislate behavior,” Vickers said, adding people should still take the responsibility to take proper measures to prevent the spread of the virus. “People should use masks and social distance.”

Utah State Sen. Evan Vickers speaks during Dixie State University’s Veterans Day ceremony, St. George, Utah, Nov. 10, 2017 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission – consisting of four appointees of the governor, two from the State Senate, two from the State House and one from the Utah Department of Health – unanimously voted to recommend to the governor that a majority of the state move to a modified form of the green lowest risk level this Friday. 

“The new phases will allow nearly all Utah businesses the opportunity to activate a plan to open safely and help the economy move forward,” a statement from the commission reads. 

However, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said lowering the risk level this week would be a mistake, as she said the spread of the virus is now increasing statewide – joining the rise seen in Southern Utah in the last week. Dunn said she is recommending no jurisdictions in the state reduce their risk level.

“I want to be very clear. We have increased spread in Utah. We have had a sharp spike in Utah,” Dunn said.

She added that a majority of the cases have been due to situations where social distancing was not maintained, especially among friends and in the workplace. Dunn said it’s not about the restrictions that were loosened by the move to orange on May 1 and yellow on May 17 as much as people not taking the responsibility to do what they can not to spread the virus. 

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

“It’s not just loosening restrictions, it’s what we do as a society,” Dunn said. 

According to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, hospitalizations in the region went up 13% on Wednesday – from 16 to 18. For the first time since the first positive test in Southern Utah on March 21, there was a double-digit number of cases in Iron County in one day.

There were a total of 22 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, equaling the amount from the day before, with 10 being in Iron County and the rest in Washington County. Of the seven largest one-day case increases since the pandemic started in Southern Utah, six of those have been in the last week.

However, Vickers, who has a medical background himself as the owner and operator of Bulloch Drug in Cedar City as well as two other pharmacies in Cedar City and Richfield, said there has been an overemphasis on the rising number of cases in the media. 

“As you look at the data and it seems like if you turn on the nightly news, all you hear are total cases, but that’s not the full picture,” Vickers said. 

Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News. Click to enlarge. | Illustration of virus by Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, St. George News

A statement by the state commission agrees, saying “the number of cases has proven to be a poor indicator of health risk for all Utahns since 99% of individuals who contract the virus recover.

The statement does not speak to the one out of every 100 people in that case who would not recover.

Utah has had one of the lower mortality rates in the nation at 1.4%, according to the Utah Department of Health. However, the mortality rate differs between states and countries. As of Wednesday, an average of about six out of every 100 people who have gotten COVID-19 in the United States have died, according to John Hopkins University.

Vickers said there is actually little difference between the yellow and green risk levels. 

“The only difference between green and yellow on business is it becomes a recommendation, whereas in yellow, it’s a requirement,” Vickers said, adding he just wants to let businesses decide for themselves what responsibilities to take, adding his drug stores will maintain their current level of precautions regardless. “We’re not going to change anything. We’re going to do what we were doing whether we’re yellow or green.”

The full guidelines can be found at this link

Vickers added the true barometer of the state of the pandemic should be hospitalizations, which he said has been steady and that the hospitals have plenty of room for more patients.

COVID Hospitalizations 6-3
Chart shows the rise in hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus since May 1 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

“Its about hospitalizations. If you look at that number, that’s been flat,” Vickers said. “There’s ample capacity for hospital beds. We’ve successfully managed that.”

According to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, hospitalizations of Southern Utah residents with the coronavirus are up 225% (from eight to 18) in the last week. Hospitalizations statewide are up 13.5% (from 95 to 108).

Officials with Dixie Regional Medical Center previously said in the last week the hospital has gone beyond the 60% beds filled. It has 24 intensive care unit beds, but can quickly expand to 89 ICU beds. 

Of the patients in the state that have required hospitalization, 30.5% (250 of 820 hospitalized) have required intensive unit care, according to the Utah Department of Health. 

Cedar City Hospital has a total of 48 beds in the entire hospital. 

Dunn said there is a large lag time between when a case is noted in the official total and when, and if, that case becomes a hospitalization.

“Hospitalization is a lagging metric,” Dunn said. “It’s a week to 10 days before a case is recorded as hospitalized.”

What politicians and health officials agree on is, regardless of risk level, those who are at higher risk of dying from the virus should maintain the same strict levels of staying at home and distancing that were in place from March to April. Those at high risk include those over the age of 65 or anyone else with lung or heart conditions, are severely obese, have diabetes or other immunocompromising conditions.

“Patients who are at risk, they should stay at red,” Vickers said.  

Health officials expect surge from protesters

Dunn said the images of protesters in masses that could not be described as social distancing, regardless of the reasons behind the protests, are causing a sense of foreboding among health officials.

Crowds demonstrate along St. George Boulevard in solidarity with national protests in the death of George Floyd, St. George, Utah, May 30, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

As part of the mass gatherings occurring across the nation as a result of the death of George Floyd, there have been hundreds attending protests in St. George and Cedar City

She added it will be important for anyone who has attended a protest to monitor their health for the next 14 days.

“We recommend anyone in a protest to watch for symptoms for the next two weeks and if they have so much as a mild symptom to isolate themselves and contact the COVID hotline,” Dunn said.

The main symptoms to look for include: 

  • Fever or chills
  • Dry cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches
  • New loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat

Dunn added because of the gestation time of the virus, it may be up to 14 days before we see the first cases that are a result of the protests and other mass gatherings. Because of the lag time between case and hospitalizations, it may be another week after that before we know the full extent to the hospitalizations. 

Spike in Santa Clara, Ivins City, Cedar City

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 June 3, 2020. Arrows indicate whether a city has moved up a rate tier, gone down or stayed the same. | Infographic by Chris Reed, Photo illustration by Pixabay, St. George News

The Utah Department of Health has raised the level of coronavirus spread to the second-highest level in Cedar City, Ivins City and Santa Clara on Wednesday. 

All three cities have been moved to the moderate-high level of between 50-100 cases in 14 days. 

The surge has been especially large in Santa Clara and Ivins City, which were on the low, or one- to five-case, level just a week ago.

St. George has been at the highest level – more than 100 cases in 14 days – in the last two weeks. That city has spurned on Washinton County as a whole, which marked its 400th coronavirus case since the pandemic started.

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 3, 2020, one-week increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 498 (238 new in one week)

  • Washington County: 400 (182 new)
  • Iron County: 92 (56 new)
  • Garfield County: 3 
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 4 

  • Washington County: 3 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 18 (14 new) 

Tested: 12,715 (3,004 new tests)

Recovered: 298 (125 new)

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

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