As coronavirus cases continue to drop, Gov. Herbert says testing will continue despite new CDC guidance

In this file photo, a Salt Lake County Health Department nurse performs a COVID-19 test outside the department in Salt Lake City, Utah, May 14, 2020 | Associated Press photo by Rick Bowmer, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah and the state at large continue to see a downturn in the number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations as a result. However, questions regarding school outbreaks, as well as confusion over mixed messages regarding testing have sprung up over the past week.

Students at Diamond Valley Elementary space themselves out before school, Diamond Valley, Utah, Aug. 13, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Annette Graf, St. George News

Students in Washington County returned to class on Aug. 13, while students in Kane, Beaver and Garfield counties resumed class last week, and the majority of Iron County schools resumed Tuesday. 

According to the Utah Department of Health, there have been 17 school outbreaks statewide that have resulted in 91 cases with the average age of those infected being 17. However, in contrast to how in-person school reopenings have gone in other states like Georgia, Alabama and Indiana – where schools have been forced to close after large outbreaks – the outbreaks in Utah have been limited to a few classrooms and have not resulted in any campuses needing to shut down and revert back to online learning

How many of those 91 cases are in the five local counties is unknown, as neither the state health department nor the Southwest Utah Public Health Department are being specific as to the details. 

Jenny Johnson, a spokesperson with the Utah Department of Health, told St. George News that data on specific schools will be released in the coming weeks.

“We are working on a new surveillance system for schools that will provide more accurate and reliable data on COVID-19 in schools,” Johnson said. “We are in the process of verifying if the data is accurate, reliable and able to be consistently reported across schools or school districts.”

Local case rates are also not seeing any discernible rise from the schools reopening. In fact, the seven-day average of new cases has continued to fall throughout Southern Utah, as have hospitalizations and deaths.

There are currently six Southern Utah residents hospitalized for the coronavirus, and that number has remained between four and six since Aug. 10. 

Chart shows the 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

Before then, hospitalizations had remained consistently in the double digits for more than two months, with Dixie Regional Medical Center teetering on being at capacity in late July. 

The death Tuesday of a hospitalized Washington County man between the ages of 65 and 84 was the first since Aug. 10. There have been three Southern Utah deaths in August, compared to 13 in July. 

The seven-day average of cases per day in Southern Utah is at 17.1, nearly a 50% drop from the 32.7 daily average at the start of the month. Individual cities in Southern Utah are also seeing drops in the rate of infection. 

At the start of the month, every community locally was in the highest rate of infections according to the Utah Department of Health. While St. George, Washington City and Hurricane/LaVerkin remain in the high rate tier, every other community has dropped.

Data from the Utah Department of Health shows the coronavirus case rates in the last two weeks in individual cities in Southern Utah as of Aug. 27, 2020. Arrows indicate whether a city has moved up a rate tier, gone down or stayed the same. | Infographic by Chris Reed, Photo illustration by Pixabay, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The most dramatic drops have been in Springdale, which is the only Southern Utah city to have a citywide mask mandate, and the Santa Clara/Ivins City area, which does not. Both have moved from the highest to the lowest tier of infection rate as measured by the state. 

The state also continues to see a drop in the daily case rate. Since Aug. 11, it has been below the goal of 400 cases per day set by the governor for the end of the month.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, attributes the statewide decrease to the increased use of masks as well as residents heeding advice to socially distance and staying home when feeling sick.  

“As we reach the end of August, we really need to be proud of what progress we have made and where we’re at,” Dunn said, adding that the prescription for how to maintain that is to not veer from what has worked. 

“I’m confident we can continue to move in this direction,” Dunn said. “Let’s commit to continue what we know works: wearing a mask, staying home if you’re sick and washing your hands.”

Confusion over new CDC advice on testing

At Gov. Gary Herbert’s press conference on Wednesday, he said a key focus right now in the state’s effort at stopping the virus is increasing testing. This comes after new advice released by the Centers for Disease Control Wednesday that has advised that fewer people needed to be tested. 

Medical personnel administer COVID-19 tests at the Intermountain drive-thru coronavirus testing site outside the InstaCare in Cedar City, Utah, on July 14, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The CDC reversed previous advice and said anyone that has been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes does not necessarily need to be tested. They also said testing is not necessary if a person was at a group gathering with more than 10 people in close quarters where masks were not worn.   

The new advice drew criticism from medical experts nationwide, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who told CNN that he was in surgery for a polyp in his vocal cords at the time the decision was made and said it gives the wrong impression that asymptomatic spread of the virus is not a concern.

The guidance drew criticism from several states that said they will continue with the recommendation that people who have been in contact with infected individuals should be tested. 

While not as forceful as officials in other states, who called the new guidance political rather than based on science, Dunn made clear that the advice of the Utah Department of Health remains the same. 

“If you have one of the six symptoms or you have been in contact with someone who’s been infected, we want you to get tested,” Dunn said. 

Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 27, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Overall, the number of people who have received tests in the state and in Southern Utah has been down in the last few weeks, but Dunn said less testing is not the reason for infection rates going down but rather a sign that fewer people have the virus. 

“This can just be due to people not being sick,” Dunn said. “It could be a really good thing. But we have the capacity.” 

While new infections are down, the actual percentage of those tested who are found positive statewide has remained at 8.6% according to the Utah Department of Health. While this is still considered relatively high, it is a drop from the 10-11% positive rate at the start of the month. 

Dunn previously said that number should be at around 3%, but she cautioned Wednesday for people not to focus on that number. 

“Three percent isn’t some magic number,” she said.

Dunn has placed more emphasis on the transmission rate, which determines for each individual infected how many others they infect. Dunn has said since the start of the pandemic the goal was to get below one.

“And we have been below one or right at one for several weeks,” she said.

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 27, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 3,504 (17.1 new infections per day in seven days, falling)

  • Washington County: 2,748 (13.6 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 614 (3.4 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 62 (0.1 per day, steady)
  • Garfield County: 49 (0 per day, steady) 
  • Beaver County: 31 (0 per day, steady) 

Deaths: 27 (0.1 per day, steady)

  • Washington County: 22
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 6 (rising)

Recovered: 3,161

Current Utah seven-day average (Governor’s goal of less than 400 by Sept. 1 ): 376 (rising)


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

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