‘It could be the natural life cycle of the virus’: COVID-19 slows in Southern Utah

Photo illustration. | Photo by Joanna Skoczen, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah is seeing its lowest coronavirus case rates since the start of May, despite some events over the past two weeks that saw hundreds of people gathered in close proximity, many without face coverings.

Downtown St. George march as a part of OUR’s walk against child trafficking in St. George, Utah, July 30, 2020. Health officials said the march and other outdoor gatherings aren’t causing any boost to new coronavirus infections. | Photo courtesy of Melissa Hill Photography, St. George News

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, which oversees the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic locally, said they have not discounted any possibilities with such a new virus; however, there is the possibility that large outdoor events may not be the super-spreaders they were thought to be.

“I think it would be safe to say outdoors is safer than indoor,” Heaton said. “We’ve not yet seen any large outdoor event be related to any significant outbreak. We continue to see smaller clusters among families and smaller gatherings.”

This is consistent with the Utah Department of Health’s previous announcement in June that it considered gatherings of up to 6,000 people outdoors permissible. Thus far, large outdoor gatherings locally – such as the July 30 Operation Underground Railroad march against child trafficking, a recent parade for a fallen soldier, the Washington County Fair, Black Lives Matter protests and a June 13 country music concert at the Iron Springs Adventure Resort in Cedar City – have not yet resulted in a large outbreak of new infections. 

Elsewhere in the nation, that has also seemingly been the case. However, there has been evidence that large gatherings in indoor arenas have led to outbreaks. A June 20 political rally that 6,200 people attended inside a Tulsa, Oklahoma, sports arena resulted in a 657% increase in new coronavirus cases locally and several deaths, according to the Tulsa City-County Health Department

Pandemic levels reach goal set to resume instruction

Just in time for Thursday’s resumption of in-person classes in Washington County, the goal that had been set to bring the pandemic levels back to where they were before the surge that took place from late May through July has been achieved.

Medical experts, including Dr. Eddie Stenehjem with Intermountain Healthcare, previously said that in order to safely resume in-person instruction in its schools, the community spread of the coronavirus would need to be back to where it was at the start of May

Chart shows daily number of new infections in Southern Utah from the coronavirus in August 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

And that is just where it is at this point. Tuesday marked the first time new infections in Southern Utah were lower than they had been since May 16, which coincidentally is when much of the state moved into the yellow coronavirus risk level. 

Gov. Gary Herbert, saying he was determined to get the growth of the pandemic under control to get schools reopened, set a goal to get the state’s seven-day average new case rate below 500 by Aug. 1

After that was achieved, he set a new goal to get the average rate below 400 by Sept. 1. That goal has already been achieved, as the state is averaging 354 new infections a day in the last seven days as of Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Health. 

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, left, and Justin Harding, chief of staff for Gov. Herbert, walk through the rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing on July 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

In a press conference Thursday, Herbert praised what he said were the efforts of Utahns to practice more social distancing and wear face coverings, as well as more private businesses requiring them of customers. But he also expressed caution about letting up those efforts.

“I like the trends we’re seeing, but I would emphasize its no time to be complacent. If anything, we should be doing more of the things with more emphasis,” Herbert said. “Now is not the time to let up. We need to redouble our efforts.”

It’s not just new cases that are trending downward in Southern Utah and the rest of the state. Hospitalizations of local residents at Dixie Regional Medical Center with the virus are also at their lowest level since early May. These numbers make Heaton cautiously optimistic.

“We love to see these numbers as schools are starting,” he said, “and we’ll see if face to face classes have an impact.” 

Chart shows the rise in deaths and hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus May 1 to Aug. 13 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department| Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Most experts now say the reopening of most businesses and many returning to their normal activities after two months of “Stay safe, stay home” resulted in the large surge in new infections that were seemingly breaking records daily after the move to yellow.

While there is agreement on what caused the virus to surge through much of the summer, Heaton said there are a couple of possibilities to explain the current downturn.

“Its hard to know for sure. It could be the result of people taking more precautions like social distancing and masks,” he said, adding there is also the possibility the area is seeing the long-awaited end of the first phase of the pandemic. “It could also be the natural life cycle of the virus.” 

Close to home, neighboring Nevada and Arizona are also seeing their lowest levels of new infections. However, other parts of the nation – especially the Southeast, Texas, California and Hawaii – are still seeing high rates of new infections. 

And while there have been only two deaths in Southern Utah from the virus in August compared with 20 in June and July, on a nationwide level, more Americans died of the virus Thursday than have died on any day since May.

According to the latest statistics from John Hopkins University, 166,971 Americans have died in eight months. Only heart disease and cancer have killed more people in the U.S. this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  

Photo illustration. | Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Heaton went on to note that other states have seen reductions in new infections only to see a new surge right after. That includes Utah, where officials felt the virus was under control enough in early May to loosen restrictions, only to see it surge in the rest of the summer. 

“We want to be cautious because we’ve seen other states where they had a slowdown and then a surge followed,” Heaton said. 

Health experts agree even if the virus is waning now, the upcoming months could bring a second wave of the virus during what is traditionally the influenza season in the fall and winter. 

As schools reopened in Washington County, the governor said parents, teachers and students following the guidelines set by state and local school districts will determine if the COVID-19 pandemic remains under control.

“If we don’t do that, and we have infections, then in-class school will cease to be, and we’ll have to close up the schools,” Herbert said. “There’s no way to have absolutely zero risk. But like anything else, you don’t know until you try.”

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.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of August 13, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 3,264 (18.7 new infections per day in seven days, falling)

  • Washington County: 2,552 (15.1 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 572 (3.1 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 60 (0 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 49 (0 per day, falling) 
  • Beaver County: 31 (0.4 per day, steady) 

Deaths: 26 (0.1 per day, steady)

  • Washington County: 21
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 5 (falling)

Recovered: 2,735

Current Utah seven-day average (Governor’s goal of less than 400 by Sept. 1 ): 354 (falling)

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

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