COVID-19 transmission rate raised to high in Washington, Beaver counties

ST. GEORGE — The Utah Department of Health raised the COVID-19 transmission rate to high in Washington and Beaver counties as the rise in coronavirus hospitalizations, infections and deaths continue.

Cedar High cheerleaders wearing masks at an Aug. 14, 2020 football game. Cedar City, Utah. | Photo Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

The change, determined by data, moved the use of face coverings in indoor gatherings from recommended to required in Beaver County. It also guaranteed that after the two-week “circuit breaker” period ends on Oct. 29, masks will still be required in Washington and Beaver counties. 

Iron County remained in the moderate range. If the area can maintain its moderate transmission levels over the next week, mask mandates there could be lifted while they will remain for much of Southern Utah.

Meanwhile, the governor and state health officials expressed on Thursday that there is not much more they can do to convince people in the state of the need to take preventative measures to slow the spread of the virus.

“I don’t know what to do anymore. We’ve focused on personal responsibility,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn with the Utah Department of Health said during the taping Thursday of PBS Utah’s “Governor’s Monthly News Conference” program. “I’m not trying to scare anyone, just inform them. We’re doing this to save lives and livelihoods.”

Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 22, 2020. | Photo courtesy of PBS Utah, St. George News

The state introduced the COVID-19 Transmission Index on Oct. 15 as a more data-driven replacement for the previous color-coded coronavirus risk levels that had been used since March. 

While answering a question posed by St. George News, Herbert said he had some regrets about that system of red, orange and yellow risk levels. 

“One of the mistakes we made was, in fact, saying it was a low risk to high risk,” Herbert said. “We probably labeled that incorrectly and probably sent the wrong message to the public at large thinking of we got into these lighter colors that somehow the risk went away when, in fact, it was just a smaller transmission rate.”

As the two-week gestation period of the virus makes it difficult to determine instantly if any policy change is having an effect on the proliferation of the virus, Dunn cautioned that it is too early to determine if the new index, as well as new mandates for masks in high transmission areas, is having an effect.

“It takes two to three weeks to see any impact,” Dunn said. 

A big reason for the increased alert level in Washington County is a test positivity rate that went from 12.6% to 16.7% in one week. And Dunn noted that a high positivity rate is a sign that there are many more cases not being detected. 

Map shows the current level of each county in Utah according to the COVID-19 Transmission Index provided by the Utah Department of Health as of Oct. 22, 2020. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Beaver County has a larger jump, going from 7.1% to 15.9% positivity rate, and was one of two counties in the state that made the biggest jump from the low to high level.

As counties are unable to go down a level for two weeks, masks will remain mandatory in Washington and Beaver counties when mask requirements are only reserved for high transmission counties after Oct. 29.

At this point, Kane County is in a select company of only five counties in the state in a low transmission rate. That makes mask-wearing recommended, but not required in Kanab and the surrounding area. 

There are 23 people locally who remain hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Garfield County has its fourth death, a male over 85 who died at home. He was the 47th death overall of COVID-19 in Southern Utah and the 14th to die here since Oct. 1.

On Wednesday Intermountain Healthcare launched a public relations campaign to try to get more public participation in socially distancing and wearing masks to reduce the burden on the hospitals. 

But echoing Dunn, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, the infectious disease director with Intermountain Healthcare, said he doesn’t know what else he can do to convince people who have been ignoring that message.

“I have a lot of frustration when I see people and local governments not heed the advice of medical professionals,” Stenehjem said. “For the first time as a physician, I’m afraid of what’s to come unless something changes.”

Noting that Utah is not the only state, or even nation, dealing with a rise in coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths, he defended his approach not to enact forced lockdowns or a mask mandate for everyone in the state.

“We have accidents on the road, but we don’t close the freeway. We put speed limits and have you wear your seat belt. But people break the speed limit and not wear their seat belt all the time,” he said. 

Go. Gary Herbert appears as part of the monthly question and answer program on PBS Utah.Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 22, 2020. | Photo courtesy of PBS Utah, St. George News

Herbert also expressed concern that people may not be grasping the still unknown long-term effects of being infected with the virus, mentioning that even those who had mild-to-no symptoms have seen long-term effects months later. 

And the governor revealed Thursday that he has first-hand knowledge as he said one of his daughters and granddaughters are “long-haulers:” the term given to those who are still dealing with issues to their health months after first testing positive for the virus.

“I have a daughter who is three months since she got COVID-19 who still doesn’t have her sense of smell back,” Herbert said. “More concerning to me is a 13-year old granddaughter. 13 years old. Who has lost her sense of smell and taste and is losing weight because she gets nauseated. When she smells food. It’s hard for her to eat. Some foods she can’t eat.” 

With still less than a year from the time the virus was detected for the first time in Wuhan, China, it is still a mystery how long, or even permanent, the effects of the virus can have on a human body. 

Also remaining a mystery, Herbert said, are those resistant to preventative measures against the virus. 

“Some say if you die, you die,” Herbert said. “I don’t think that callous approach should be applied in Utah.”

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 Oct. 22, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 5,504 (65.4 new infections per day in seven days, dropped since Oct. 21)

  • Washington County: 4,364 (55.6 per day, dropped)
  • Iron County: 891 (5.9 per day, dropped)
  • Kane County: 95 (0.7 per day, steady)
  • Garfield County: 90 (2.4 per day, rising) 
  • Beaver County: 64 (0.8 per day, dropping) 

Deaths: 48 (0.4 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 40
  • Iron County: 3 
  • Garfield County: 4 (1 new since last report: male resident at home over 85)
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 23 (dropped)

Recovered: 4,471

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,288 (dropped)

Southern Utah counties in high transmission level as of Oct. 22 (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less): Washington (16.7% positive tests, 407.7 per 100,000 case rate), Beaver (15.9% positive tests, 304.0 per 100,000 case rate), Garfield (22.1% positive tests, 649.6 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in moderate transmission level (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less until Oct. 29):  Iron (10.9% positive tests, 164.9 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in low transmission level (masks recommended, gatherings to 50 or less): , Kane (8.6% positive tests, 116.7 per 100,000 case rate)

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

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