ST. GEORGE — The state epidemiologist said Southern Utah has one last chance to get the growing local spread of the virus under control as two nursing homes in St. George have outbreaks of the coronavirus.
The Wentworth at the Meadows memory care home in St. George has more than five patients with the virus, according to the Utah Department of Health. St. George Rehabilitation is also seeing an outbreak of fewer than five people. (See Ed. note)
The area saw its first nursing home death Thursday, though for privacy reasons heath officials have not disclosed the facility where the resident died.
Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, told St. George News that the homes, which have instituted strict no-visitor policies, are not necessarily to blame.
“This is the result of a greater spread of the virus among residents there, including those who are asymptomatic,” Dunn said.
The way Dunn explains it, there are now many more people in Washington and Iron counties who are walking around with the virus and may not know it. Being asymptomatic, or without symptoms, they can still spread the virus to others – especially without social distancing or wearing face coverings to block the spread to others.
So even when family members are not allowed inside to see their loved ones – having to look through glass at best – it’s possible an asymptomatic staff member who caught it from another person without symptoms would still get past the temperature checks and testing that won’t detect the virus typically until four days after infection.
And the number of local residents with the virus is currently growing exponentially.
Whereas a month ago more than 10 new COVID-19 cases in a day in Southern Utah would be abnormal, on Friday there was an all-time high of 55 new cases with 51 in Washington County alone according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Southern Utah is now within reach of passing 1,000 cases since the first positive test in Southern Utah three months ago.
In a talk exclusively with media outlets in Southern Utah Friday, Dunn was blunt with the situation that especially Washington and Iron counties are facing as far as the pandemic is concerned: If people aren’t willing to volunteer to practice social distancing and wear face coverings when that isn’t possible, they may need to be “voluntold.”
“When looking at your case trajectory, we’re in that last window where we can control it without extreme measures,” Dunn, with the Utah Department of Health, said. “If we keep seeing a spike in cases, our economy is going to suffer no matter what the color is.”
Since the area saw the ending of the red “stay safe, stay home” phase and went orange on May 1 (and fewer restrictions under yellow on May 16), coronavirus infections have gone up 1,080% in Washington County (from 71 to 767 cases) and 964% (from 101 to 974 cases) overall in Southern Utah according to figures from the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.
Dunn said she is especially alarmed with infections increasing in St. George, Hurricane and Washington County as a whole. She also said she is concerned about what she said is a surge in the number of patients at Dixie Regional Medical Center. She indicated the 21 Southern Utah residents being hospitalized are all at Dixie, which is also taking in COVID-19 patients from northern areas of Arizona and Nevada. Its intensive care unit has been flirting with being 75% full, which doesn’t only affect the capability of the hospital to handle coronavirus patients.
“If a loved one has a heart attack and there’s no ICU bed because of COVID patients, that’s going to affect them,” Dunn said.
The state also set an all-time high on Friday with the Utah Department of Health recording 586 new cases. The time where Dunn and other state officials celebrated cases in the state plateau a month ago seems even further away, as the state has not seen a day with less than 200 new cases since May 27.
Ultimately, Dunn’s role is to make a recommendation to Gov. Gary Herbert, who has chosen to keep much of the state in yellow until at least next Friday. He has moved in the past week to move the more rural areas of Southern Utah – Beaver, Kane and Garfield counties – to the “new normal” green as they have each had less than 10 cases through the pandemic.
But Dunn’s voice isn’t the only one. Herbert has to weigh her data-driven advice on the health side with the interests and concerns of business leaders and many legislators in Southern Utah who have said that the state should not go back to recommending the closure of businesses and telling people to stay home.
Don Willie, president and CEO of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce and a member of the governor’s COVID-19 Economic Task Force, told St. George News Wednesday that with no sign of a vaccine, it will be a great deal of time before COVID-19 is no longer a threat and he said people need to earn a living and is not in support of a return to more stringent measures.
But the health and business leaders agree it will be up to residents to determine how bad the current increase in the spread of the virus gets in Washington and Iron counties.
When asked what can stop the current spike, Dunn was blunt that there is nothing doctors can do at this point or any medical miracle on the horizon. The only proven prevention at this point according to medical experts is for people to socially distance, wear masks when they can’t and stay home when they’re sick.
“Ultimately, it’s going to be what people do,” Dunn said. “There is no treatment or vaccine.”
Dunn is quick to acknowledge that even if it’s doctor’s orders, there might not be any appetite for any mandatory edicts to take preventative measures against the virus, let alone adhering to voluntary recommendations.
“I’m not sure extreme measures would even be tolerated in Utah,” Dunn said.
Thus far in the four months of the pandemic, Utah has not joined other states with mandatory orders, like California where Gov. Gavin Newsom made mask-wearing mandatory in the state Thursday.
The one time Herbert made a mandatory order was when he ordered all restaurants in the state to suspend dine-in options on March 17. That order was lifted with the move to orange on May 1.
‘No visitors permitted’
A sign outside the door of the Wentworth at the Meadows memory care home states:
“No Visitors permitted at this time due to the recent coronavirus outbreak. Please check-in at the front desk for further instructions or questions.”
Jennifer Shakespeare, regional director of sales and marketing at the Wentworth, told St. George News that the home had been taking extreme measures since March.
Even before these cases, we kept a close eye on quarantine measures,” Shakespeare said. “As soon as COVID was impactful, we’ve been ahead of game. We’re doing all we can.”
The outbreak has been limited to the Wentworth’s memory care building at 330 E. 1160 South. Wentworth officials said the rest of the housing at the overall assisted living senior complex is virus-free.
Most visitors, even family, have not been permitted since then. Just recently, family members were allowed in after a health screening at the end of a loved one’s life. Otherwise, the best they could do was speak to a loved one through a window.
Residents were limited to staying for the most part in their rooms with any activities being limited to themselves in their rooms. New or returning residents were quarantined for a time in modified droplet precaution rooms.
All staff wore masks and all mail and items for residents were held for 24 hours and sanitized.
Despite that wall of protection, the virus still got in.
Officials at St. George Rehabilitation did not return a request for comment. Like Wentworth, St. George Rehabilitation has been following preventative measures since March including limiting nonresidents and staff allowed to enter to essential medical personnel or end-of-life visitors.
Dunn said health department personnel will be doing continuous testing and monitoring of staff and residents in the coming days, while residents are required to stay in their rooms, to stem the outbreak getting any worse in the homes.
Up until Thursday, the lack of coronavirus cases, let alone deaths, at local nursing homes was a success story compared to northern Utah, where 43.2% of the state’s deaths from the virus (67 of 155) had come from homes in and near Salt Lake City.
An additional measure for all nursing homes in the state is awaiting the governor’s signature after passing both houses of the state legislature Thursday during its special session in Salt Lake City.
SB5011 changes state law to allow a facility to discharge a resident who declines testing requested by a local health department.
Shakespeare doesn’t see the bill changing much at her facility because she said she has not seen resistance to testing.
“We already do testing. That’s part of our protocol and families are all for it,” Shakespeare said. “This is nothing new.”
The bill passed unanimously in the State Senate and passed 56-19 in the House Thursday. All of Southern Utah’s legislators voted for the measure which awaits the governor’s signature.
Ed. note: This story has been updated to clarify that the coronavirus outbreak at The Wentworth at Meadows has been limited to the memory care portion of the complex.
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 19, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)
- Washington County: 767 (51 new)
- Iron County: 197 (3 new)
- Garfield County: 4
- Kane County: 5 (1 new)
- Beaver County: 1
- Washington County: 7
- Iron County: 1
- Garfield County: 1
Hospitalized: 21 (2 less)
Tested: 16,544 (0 new tests)
Recovered: 695 (27 new)
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