ST. GEORGE — As the state approaches the deadline set to get the increasing number of coronavirus infections under control, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert put the status of that effort in football terms.
In his eyes, Utahns have not crossed the goal line, but they are getting close and need to keep driving. And he doesn’t appear to be ready to take the ball from them with a larger mask mandate or a move back to more restrictions on businesses being open.
“We’re moving in the right direction but not ready to spike the football,” Herbert said during a press conference Thursday. “The solution is us using the best science we have. I’m very optimistic about the trend.”
The governor also announced guidelines for schools to reopen that includes the option for students and teachers to attend class even if they have been exposed to someone with the virus.
At the start of the month, Herbert said he would potentially roll back the state’s coronavirus alert level to orange and possibly mandate masks and face coverings if the state’s average seven-day case rate wasn’t below 500 by Aug. 1.
While there have been times this month that rate has flirted with going above 700, according to the Utah Department of Health, as of Thursday, that rate was at 508. Also for the first time, the transmission rate of the virus in the state went below one person for every person infected – a goal set by the governor back at the start of the pandemic in Utah in March.
Herbert’s message Thursday was for Utahns to continue what he said have been their increased efforts to wear masks and practice social distancing that state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said has been at least correlated, if not the direct cause of, the declining infection rate statewide and in Southern Utah.
“I wish it was below 400. It can always be better,” Herbert said. “I know it sounds like a broken record, but until everybody does it – practice social distancing, but if you can’t wear a mask, and stay home when you’re sick, and wash your hands frequently – combine these, we’ll help prevent people getting this. If anything, we should double our efforts.”
In Southern Utah, according to statistics by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, the area has gone from 42.4 new infections per day in seven days to 37.3 as of Thursday. What had been outbreaks at four long-term care facilities in St. George at the start of the month now stands at zero as The Retreat at Sunbrook Assisted Living Sterling Court and the Wentworth at the Meadows Memory Care Center each got the all-clear this week.
Dunn, with the Utah Department of Health, describes the situation statewide as going from an out-of-control situation, to a plateau, to a reduction over the past few weeks. David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said the southwest part of the state is mirroring that.
“We seem to be marrying the state in that, but we want to be cautious,” Heaton said. “We want to see at least seven days of that and we have not seen that yet.”
Setting a pandemic plan for schools
Herbert and the state’s health and education departments also had their eye on K-12 campuses, issuing guidelines Thursday for schools as they reopen in the next few weeks.
The state issued the COVID-19 School Manual designed to be guidelines for what is stated as a safe learning environment and workplace.
Along with the governor’s previous order mandating all students, staff and visitors wear masks in indoor areas of schools, the manual lays out a plan of what to do if a student, teacher or employee is exposed to COVID-19 or tests positive. It also lays out prevention guidelines that include cleaning procedures.
The plan includes the option for students and teachers to attend class even if they have been exposed to someone with the virus.
The complete COVID-19 School Manual can be found at this link.
Utah Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Sydnee Dickson urged parents and school staff to completely read through the 102-page document before jumping to any conclusions.
“Don’t just pick out one page on social media; read it in its entirety,” Dickson said.
Students and teachers who test positive for the virus will need to stay home until at least 10 days after the day of their positive test and 24 hours without a fever.
The plan includes what is called “modified quarantine,” where students and teachers who have been exposed to someone with the virus but have no symptoms are permitted to still come to school but can only attend class if they are kept at least six feet from anyone else. The exposed students cannot do any activities outside of class, including clubs and sports.
Dunn said the modified quarantine is modeled after the state’s policy for essential workers and caregivers.
“This is a practice we have used for essential employees and it has worked,” she said.
Students and teachers are directed not to come to school if someone in their household has the virus. Certain staff, like janitors, are directed to stay home if they have been exposed to someone with the virus at all.
On Tuesday, the Utah Education Association, which represents teachers in the state, recommended delaying the start of in-person instruction until the virus is contained.
Herbert, who has been adamant about getting the state’s children back into classrooms, did not commit to any delay, leaving the decision to the 41 individual school districts in the state.
“Some will have delayed openings, some hybrid (with online instruction) openings. I trust the local school boards and superintendents to make the best decision,” Herbert said. “We want parents to feel safe about attending school, we want teachers to feel safe.”
On Wednesday, the Iron County School District announced it was delaying the start of its school year by two weeks. The school districts in Washington, Kane, Garfield and Beaver counties remain committed to their first days of school within the next three weeks.
Both Dunn on the state level and Heaton locally said the biggest key to ensuring schools open safely isn’t in the schools themselves but in the neighborhoods surrounding the campuses. They say the rate of the spread of the virus in communities will determine how much it spreads in schools, and getting the infection rate down even further in the next few weeks before campuses open will be important.
Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, the infectious disease expert for Intermountain Healthcare, was more blunt in a conversation with St. George News and other media outlets Thursday.
“If we can get back to where we were in April and May, we can think about opening schools. If we don’t do that, opening schools is going to be dangerous,” Stenehjem said.
At the time the state moved from the red to the orange coronavirus level on May 1, the state was averaging 150 new coronavirus cases a day while Southern Utah was averaging four new infections a day. At the time, there was a total of 101 people that had been positive for COVID-19 in Southern Utah and two deaths. There are now 2,855 people locally who have been infected with 24 dead.
Stenehjem said we can look to the countries in Europe as an example of how to reopen schools. He said a key has been that they have gotten the spread of infection under control in their communities, allowing schools to open safely.
“They have been open in Europe where community transmission is much lower than us. If we can get this community transmission under control, we can open schools safely here,” Stenehjem said. “There’s a huge benefit to opening schools. Our effort in the next four weeks should be driving our cases down solely for opening schools. We know kids transmit infections. Kids do well, but they do transmit it. I’m worried about the teachers, parents, janitors, staff.”
Most European countries are reporting an average of fewer than 200 cases per day, according to the European Center for Disease Control. Earlier this month, Washington County alone was regularly exceeding the number of new daily cases in the entire countries of France, Spain, Norway and Belgium, among other nations, according to the World Health Organization.
Stenehjem said he fears if schools reopen without the rate of infections under control, it won’t be long before they may be forced to close again.
“Schools will have to be nimble,” Stenehjem said. “Will they reopen and have to close right back up? Yes, that’s possible.”
Officials continue to tout efficacy of masks
With many summertime events well underway, health officials are asking people to be mindful of others at larger gatherings by wearing face coverings.
Tom Hudachko, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health, told St. George News the state’s public health guidelines allow for up to 6,000 people to gather for outdoor events, with the expectation that they are social distancing and wearing masks when they can’t.
“While outdoor events don’t appear to have the same likelihood of spreading the virus as indoor events do, all large events where people are not wearing masks and practicing physical distancing have the potential to spread the virus,” Hudachko said.
Heaton said the health department has yet to see any “super-spreader” events in southwest Utah, but he cautioned that could change in the case of events with few people taking preventative measures.
“It heightens the risk,” he said of people ignoring face covering and social distancing guidelines at large gatherings.
COVID-19 information resources
St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.
We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Información sobre coronavirus en español
- Intermountain Healthcare
- To Donate and Volunteer to Help
Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of July 30, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)
Positive COVID-19 tests: 2,855 (37.3 new infections per day in seven days, falling)
- Washington County: 2,233 (26.7 per day, falling)
- Iron County: 500 (7.3 per day, rising)
- Kane County: 54 (1.4 per day, falling)
- Garfield County: 42 (1.4 per day, rising)
- Beaver County: 26 (0.9 per day, rising)
Deaths: 24 (0.4 per day, rising)
- Washington County: 20
- Iron County: 2
- Garfield County: 2
Current Utah seven-day average (Goal of less than 500 by Aug. 1 ): 508 (falling)
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