ST. GEORGE — As the state revealed the fourth version of its pandemic management plan, hospitalizations and deaths are rising in Southern Utah from the coronavirus, including the first death in Garfield County.
Southern Utah added 34 new infections Wednesday and the eighth death in the five-county area – a male between 45 and 60 years old that lived in Garfield County who was not hospitalized at his time of death but had underlying health conditions, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The number of those who have died of the coronavirus in Southern Utah during the pandemic has doubled from four to eight in the last six days.
During a press conference Wednesday, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn made clear that every death listed in Utah as being from the coronavirus was from the coronavirus.
“We follow a national case definition. We take that very seriously,” Dunn told St. George News. “We ensure that every death listed as COVID-related would be that they wouldn’t have died if they didn’t have COVID.”
In the meantime, hospitalizations of people with the virus in Southern Utah have also been on the rise since Saturday, going from 16-23 — an all-time high since the pandemic began.
This is reflective of a statewide increase of hospitalizations for the virus this month, according to the Utah Department of Health, which has gone up 37.4% (from 104 to 147) in June.
The increasing hospitalizations are a concern to Gov. Gary Herbert, who at the same press conference introduced the 4.0 version of the “Utah Leads Together” pandemic plan.
Herbert emphasized the current plan to leave it to individual Utahns to practice social distancing and wear face coverings when that isn’t possible in public. But while he spent much of the press conference emphasizing that he isn’t looking into recommendations to close down businesses again, he doesn’t discount that possibility if hospitalizations continue to rise.
“If things continue to rise, we need to reverse from going orange to yellow, that might be reconsidered,” Herbert said.
This, in turn, is taking a toll on intensive care units where COVID-19 patients typically take up an ICU bed for an average of 30 days. Statewide, the ICU capacity that had been at 15% a week ago is now at 58.2% according to the Utah Department of Health.
Officials said the intensive care unit at Dixie Regional Medical Center is approaching 65% capacity.
“Our ICU is currently at less than two-thirds capacity,” said Terri Draper, spokesperson for Dixie Regional Medical Center, who added that number is dynamic. “Please remember available capacity fluctuates daily and often multiple times a day as patient conditions improve or worsen or we receive new patients.”
Governor introduces Utah Leads Together 4.0
During the same press conference at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Herbert reflected on a COVID-19 pandemic that first appeared in Utah in March, but seems like a lifetime ago.
“We’ve been involved in this for three and a half months. That’s a really short time,” Herbert said. “ I know for a lot of us it’s felt like three and a half years.”
Herbert had his eyes on the next few months as far as the economic recovery is concerned with the 4.0 version of the “Utah Leads Together” pandemic plan.
The first version of the plan introduced the first measures to prevent the spread of the virus, while the 2.0 version introduced the red-orange-yellow-green risk levels and the 3.0 version introduces specific guidelines for high-risk individuals. Herbert said the 4.0 version introduces what he said is the foundation of economic recovery. Many of these elements will be debated in a fifth special session of the state legislature that will begin Thursday in the state capital.
The plan puts an emphasis on giving a boost to infrastructure projects – especially those that are shovel-ready.
“What are our priorities? Our most immediate need is to get those out of work back to work as soon as possible. We need construction-ready construction projects and to prepare for the future,” Herbert said.
However, the governor cautioned that any recovery will fizzle if the spread of the virus continues to get out of control. And for that, he said he is now looking to the personal responsibility of Utahns, rather than recommendations to stay at home or close businesses as was the case at the start of the pandemic.
“Central to volume 4 is the imperative that Utahns continue to take personal responsibility. If we’re going to have success with this, it comes down to each one of us,” Herbert said.
The complete Utah Leads Together 4.0 plan can be found at this link.
Don Willie, president and CEO of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, is a member of the governor’s COVID-19 Economic Task Force that helped formulate the 4.0 plan. He told St. George News the new plan differs from the others in that it is a chance for the state to catch a breath and look forward after months of trying to stop the economic bleeding from the pandemic.
“Phase 4 I’m really excited about because it allows us to refocus on the future. The other phases have focused on triage,” Willie said. “This lays out the days ahead.”
The economic recovery plan is laid out looking at the next 150, 250 and 500 days. The first 150 days are devoted to returning people to work, while the period beyond looks at infrastructure investment and other opportunities for growth.
As far as Southern Utah is concerned, the report specifically mentions the construction of new student housing at Dixie State University. Willie also has in mind the development of Tech Ridge in St. George and improvements to Interstate 15 in Washington City.
“This allows us to focus on projects that we haven’t given attention in the past. Sometimes we get caught up and say these are useless projects. Sometimes we’re prone to think is this just putting people back to work. But this will stimulate economic growth.”
While some might look at an economic downturn as not being the time for capital projects, others look at such a downturn as an opportunity to take advantage of lower bids for contracting and other discounts on projects that would be more expensive in better times. Such is the case in Ivins City, which is going ahead with the construction of a new City Hall with leaders citing a lower cost to build more now.
As a former resident of Salt Lake City, Willie said he is reminded of how the Utah State Capitol Building was built in the 1910s as far as having the foresight to look beyond current times.
“Early residents of the state said, ‘Why on Earth are we building such a massive building?’” Willie said. “The justification was, ‘We aren’t building it for us, but for our future.’”
‘Stay safe to stay open’
Willie is quick to add that the future is much more cloudy if people don’t feel safe to go out and spend their money.
To that end, the 4.0 plan includes a program called “Stay Safe to Stay Open” in which businesses that make a pledge to adhere to state guidelines on the virus – including social distancing and employees wearing masks – will be able to display “Stay Safe to Stay Open” signage. The idea being that customers will be more attracted to give patronage to businesses that are making an active effort to avoid spreading the virus.
“There’s no teeth to it, but it is meant to encourage businesses to take those precautions because consumers will be watching,” Willie said. “Businesses will lose customers if they have an environment people don’t feel safe with. I know if I don’t see employees wearing facemasks, I’m personally concerned.”
On a local basis, Willie said the Chamber of Commerce is developing a program with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department where businesses could get a certificate showing they are adhering to local health guidelines.
The 4.0 plan also lays out the idea of having grants for businesses to make their workplaces and customer-facing areas safer, though it will be up to the legislature to approve that program during the special session.
But with all the talk Thursday on the economy moving forward, the number of hospitalizations and the continuing growth in cases show the virus continues to show growth as well.
While politicians, public health officials and business leaders continue to talk about a balance between public health and business interests, the question becomes if the growth of the infections continued, would the move at the start of May of reopening the economy be like a Pandora’s box that can’t be closed back up if the health situation demand it?
Willie said from his standpoint with indications the COVID-19 virus will be around for a while, it will be up to people to take responsibility on their own, rather than the government telling them they need to do so.
“It’s a challenging conversation. That has been a weight on my shoulders as you balance economic impact. On the other side, you have people who lose their jobs. We have to remember until there’s a vaccine, we will continue to see cases,” Willie said. “The intent was never to eliminate or eradicate it. Yes, we’ve seen a spike in cases. That’s a call on each of us that we need to be more diligent and do our part. It’s part of being a good neighbor.”
COVID-19 information resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Intermountain Healthcare
- To Donate and Volunteer to Help
Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 17, 2020, one-week increase in parentheses)
- Washington County: 689 (157 new)
- Iron County: 191 (51 new)
- Garfield County: 4
- Kane County: 4
- Beaver County: 1 (1 new)
Deaths: 8 (4 new)
- Washington County: 6 (3 new)
- Iron County: 1
- Garfield County: 1 (1 new)
Hospitalized: 26 (6 more than last week)
Tested: 15,998 (2,019 new tests)
Recovered: 628 (168 new)
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