UPDATED: ‘People seem to be taking it less seriously’; governor keeps coronavirus risk status yellow

Simulated microscopic view of the viral cell Covid-19 on a yellow background. | Photo by Julia Garan/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert announced Friday morning that there will be no change in the overall coronavirus risk status in Utah, keeping Southern Utah in the yellow phase of recommended restrictions it has been in since May 16.

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 | Associated Press file photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

Updated 7:00 p.m. Update from the intensive care unit at Dixie Regional Medical Center, latest Southern Utah numbers.

Herbert extended his current risk status order a week to June 12. All areas of the state will remain yellow except for Salt Lake City, Bluff and Mexican Hat, which have remained in the stricter orange level.

In making the decision, the governor cited a rise in the spread of the virus and hospitalizations statewide, including an increase for the last two weeks in Southern Utah.

“Common sense requires keeping our current health risk guidance in place. We all want to return to more normal patterns of life as soon as possible, but we also do not want to take a step back in our progress against this disease and our reactivation of the economy,” Herbert said in a statement. “A marked increase in disease incidence and in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 give us pause. We will continue to analyze data trends with an eye toward balancing overall health risks and protecting high-risk populations.”

In the end, Herbert sided with the recommendations of medical experts, rather than a panel of political appointees.

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

The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, consisting of appointees of the state Legislature and the governor, unanimously recommended moving most of Utah to the lowest green risk level, while the Utah Department of Health has recommended no reduction of risk level for any jurisdictions. 

“Utah’s Yellow phase guidance emphasizes taking common sense precautions so that we can safely resume regular social and economic pursuits,” Herbert said. “Under Yellow risk status there are no economic activities that are categorically prohibited if common sense precautions are in place.”

Herbert said he was still keeping the option open to move some rural communities to the lowest risk green status sooner than later.

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

Under the green status, most of the recommended restrictions, including on maintaining distance and close contact, would be removed except for those at high risk of dying from the virus.

Because of the gestation period of the virus and an even further lag in the hospitalizations number, Utahns are just starting to see the first cases from the Memorial Day weekend. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has warned in the coming weeks there could be a substantial increase in hospitalizations from more than a week of mass gathering protests throughout the state, including in Southern Utah.

The Utah Department of Health announced Friday the largest one-day increase in cases since the pandemic started, which was nearly twice the previous high.

There were 439 additional cases in Utah for a 4.1% increase (10,813 to 11,252) from Thursday. There was a 21.3% increase in hospitalizations statewide Friday, going from 94 to 114 people hospitalized.

“Social distancing is more important than ever, yet people seem to be taking it less seriously than ever,” Dunn said. “If you’re sick, stay home. If you’re moving about in public, wear a mask. It is up to all of us as individuals to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Utah.”

Herbert said the move to yellow has allowed more of Utah’s businesses to open up, but he said it will be up to Utahns to take the right precautions to speed the move to green as he reviews the risk status again next Friday.

“Under Yellow risk status there are no economic activities that are categorically prohibited if common-sense precautions are in place,” Herbert said. “We have shown that we can make progress to slow the spread of coronavirus even while reactivating our economy. I strongly urge Utahns to use face coverings. I know that wearing masks looks and feels different, but it is an easy, low-cost practice that will help us return to normal. I believe that wearing masks has helped to reduce the asymptomatic spread of the virus among state officials even as we have been working long hours together in close quarters.”

Undated file picture of raw pork chops in a meatpacking factory in an undisclosed location. | Photo by
RGtimeline, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

As an example of how the virus has spread quickly at businesses in the past few days, Dunn said one out of every three, or about 146, of the new cases statewide Friday are coming from the Bear River area near Logan with many coming from one meatpacking plant.

“Many of the workers at this facility match the demographics of who we know are at the highest risk for infection,” Dunn said.

“It’s more important than ever that employers provide safe working environments for their employees, and have policies in place that not only allow, but encourage, employees to stay away from the workplace when they are sick.”

Intensive care capacity filling quickly

Chart shows the rise in hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to June 5, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

Southern Utah was not hit by the same large increase in hospitalizations seen in the rest of the state Friday, staying stable at 17. However, the number of local hospitalized has tripled in the last week. And beyond locals, Dixie Regional Center also handles coronavirus patients from nearby out of state areas like Mesquite, Nevada and Northern Arizona.

However, health experts say any surge in cases is not reflected in hospitalizations for five to eight days. In a presentation to the St. George City Council on Thursday night, Dixie Regional Medical Center’s intensive care unit director said for every eight or so patients coming in, one will require a ventilator in the ICU.

Unlike a typical pneumonia patient that needs four to five days on a ventilator, each COVID-19 patient usually requires an average of 30 days on a ventilator , taking up an ICU bed. Dixie Regional has 79 ventilators on hand and just expanded its capacity of 24 ICU beds to 32 with a plan to move up to 89 if necessary. 

“We’ve had many patients on a ventilator for more than a month,” ICU Director Dr. Bryce Ferguson said. “Many times, we are comfortable with seeing family members recover and go home. COVID is a different process. If we have patients arrive in the ICU, they don’t leave.”

With more ICU patients needing up to 30 days on a ventilator that capacity can dwindle quickly. If, as expected, hospitalizations surge more in the next seven days, the vacancy sign on Dixie Regional Medical Center’s ICU might not be shining much longer.

“”If you do the math, in five days we’re going to get eight hospital patients and one ventilated a day and that ventilated will be here more than a month so you can see how quickly the ICU can fill up,” Ferguson said. 

Ferguson said the number of patients in the Dixie ICU has fluctuated between the “10s and 20s” in the last week. Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional, told the St. George Council people might also be forgetting the number of non-COVID patients the ICU is also already dealing with.

“The ICU isn’t just filled up with COVID patients. In a non-covid world, the ICU has low teens to 20s in number of patients,” Carroll said. “If you add COVID patients on top of it, there’s not a tremendous amount of wiggle room.”

Southern Utah update

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through June 5, 2020. Click to enlarge. | Background photo by
mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News

While hospitalizations stayed the same, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department reports that for the second time, there were 30 or more new cases on Friday where people tested positive for the coronavirus. There were 30 more cases, and after three days where Iron County was taking a greater share of the cases, Washinton County moved back in front again with 25.

Of the 10 days with the highest one-day totals for new cases in Southern Utah, eight of them have come in the last eight days.

On Thursday, Garfield County had its first new case since late April. Elsewhere in Southern Utah, Kane County hasn’t had a new case in two months and Beaver County has never had a case though medical officials there have said several people have been tested.

In all, there have been 554 Southern Utah residents who have had the virus with 201 presently infected. Beyond the recovered, the best news is the number of dead has stayed at four since May 18 keeping up Utah’s status with one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates in the nation.

That still brings little comfort for the people Ferguson has had to watch die in Dixie Regional Medical Center’s ICU. 

“A patient had a loved one a couple of doors down. Overnight, her deared one passed away,” Ferguson said. “They mouthed the words ‘heartbroken.’ She knew what happened a few doors down.

Ferguson also recounted another patient whose blood oxygenation was in the 70s. As is the usual in regard to COVID-19, yet unusual compared to other illnesses, the patient was still able to fully communicate enough that they desperately didn’t want to go on the ventilator.

“We were giving this patient boatloads of oxygen but they were down to 75. They were still coherent and that patient said, I don’t want that tube. The patient kept saying no. We went and called the family member to prepare for the worst but the next night the patient was still there and had improved,” Ferguson said. “I was there three weeks later when they passed away.” 

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 5, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 554 (30 new in one day)

  • Washington County: 435 (25 new)
  • Iron County: 112 (5 new)
  • Garfield County: 4 
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 4 

  • Washington County: 3 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 17 (0 new) 

Tested: 13,337 (622 new tests)

Recovered: 351 (31 new).

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

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