State spike in coronavirus cases not stretching into Southern Utah

Social distancing floor sign in St. George Regional Airport on June 22, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As far as COVID-19 is concerned, the state of Utah had one of its worst days on Wednesday since the pandemic began.

Workers test Utah State University students for COVID-19 on Aug. 30, 2020, in Hyde Park, Utah. | Photo by Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via The Associated Press, St. George News

But very little of the blame fell on Southern Utah.

The Utah Department of Health reported 747 new infections in the state Wednesday, the most since 863 were reported on Pioneer Day, July 24. 

But while the five-county area of Southwest Utah has been seeing an uptick in new infections, the 72 new cases this week is accounting for 3% of the total in the state. And even then, 15% (11) of those local cases are beyond Washington County.

The culprit appears to lie in one place: Utah County and what appears to be a large outbreak on the campus of Brigham Young University. 

The Utah Department of Health reports more than 40% of the new infections in the spike are coming from Utah County, and a large majority of those, around 540, are coming from BYU students, faculty and staff. That extends to BYU’s popular football team, which has been forced to cancel its games and practices for the next two weeks after an outbreak among its players. 

The health department cites reports of on- and off-campus parties as being spreader events and have drawn the attention of state epidemiologist Dt. Angela Dunn. 

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sept. 3, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

“Colleges across the state, and specifically in Utah County, have acted proactively to implement solid prevention measures on their campuses. They need help from their students to act responsibly while off campus,” Dunn said. “What students do off campus has a direct impact on a school’s ability to safely operate their campus.”

In Southern Utah, Dixie State University went back into session Aug. 24 and Southern Utah University started its semester Sept. 9. Based on the gestation time for the virus, it’s still too early to know if the Cedar City campus is contributing to any increase in the local transmission rate. However, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department has reported that it has not seen any substantial outbreak or increasing infections being caused by the return of students to the DSU campus.

Regardless of whether the lower part of the state is a factor, the statewide spike has erased the gains that caused optimism in Gov. Gary Herbert’s weekly press conferences. The state had succeeded in achieving the governor’s goals of going below a seven-day average of 500 new cases a day by Aug. 1 and 400 by Sept. 1, but as of Wednesday, that average is back up to 585 and 11.1% of COVID-19 tests are coming back as positive – far above the goal of 3%. 

Southern Utah University Class of 2020 graduation commencement, Cedar City, Utah, Aug. 8, 2020 | Photo by Gerry Trelease for St. George News / Cedar City News

Locally, while hospitalizations are going down and there has not been a new death in more than a week, there are also some warning signs. The test positivity rate, considered a precursor to an outbreak if it falls above 8%, is at 12% (23 of 191 tests), according to Southwest Utah Public Health Department statistics.

There are also two new large outbreaks reported by the Utah Department of Health with more than five new cases in two local long-term care homes: Autumn Park Assisted Living in Washington City and The Haven at Sky Mountain in Hurricane. 

As far as remedying the new spike in cases statewide, Dunn says the remedy is the same as the one she said contributed to bringing the July spike down: social distancing and masks.

“We learned from our experience this summer that wearing masks and practicing physical distancing, along with staying home when we’re sick and washing our hands regularly, can help slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities,” Dunn said. “We are currently experiencing a new spike in cases, similar to what we saw earlier in the summer. It’s time to reiterate the importance of people taking these preventive measures.”

Bolstering that stance, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, testifying before a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday, said more people wearing masks could have a greater effect toward controlling the virus than a vaccine would.

“I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine,” Redfield said.

Ed. note: An earlier version of this article stated that BYU was holding all of their classes in person, but it has been brought to our attention that some classes are being delivered in a hybrid model.

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 Sept. 16, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 3,903 (19.6 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 3,046 (16.3 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 703 (2.7 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 73 (0.4 per day, dropping)
  • Garfield County: 46 (0 per day, steady) 
  • Beaver County: 35 (0.3 per day, rising) 

Deaths: 29 (0 per day, dropping)

  • Washington County: 24 
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 5 (dropping)

Recovered: 3,526

Current Utah seven-day average: 585 (rising)

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

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