UPDATED: Mask mandate lifted in Iron County, remains in effect for other Southern Utah counties

ST. GEORGE — A mask mandate that was in effect for Iron County has been lifted, while it will remain in effect for Washington, Beaver and Garfield counties, the Utah Department of Health announced Thursday.

Downtown Cedar City, where a mask requirement is now lifted.  Cedar City, Utah, March 17, 2007. | Photo by credit: ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0), Ken Lund, St. George News

The move comes as Southern Utah recorded its second-highest day for new infections. Medical staff made a plea for help as the number of locals hospitalized for the coronavirus reached its highest level and two more Southern Utahns died of the virus – including the first death from COVID-19 in Beaver County.

Thursday marked the end of the two-week “circuit breaker” that was designed to stem what state officials and medical professionals all call a “major spike” in the COVID-19 pandemic locally and in the state. During that time, counties considered to be at a “moderate” transmission level still had a mask requirement. That changed Thursday to where masks are recommended in moderate counties, rather than required.

Iron County is the only one in the state to be at the moderate level Thursday, meaning the mask requirement that has been in place for the last two weeks is lifted, according to Rich Saunders, interim director of the Utah Department of Health.

While state political and health leaders painted a picture of a hospital system nearing crisis mode in a time that has seen the largest number of deaths, hospitalizations and new cases in the state since the start of the pandemic in March, Saunders said Iron County residents should be rewarded for being one of the few places in the state not to see a substantial rise in infections and positive tests in the last two weeks.

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. 29, 2020. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“It’s simply the data we have chosen to use. They have fairly decent numbers compared to the rest of the state,” Saunders said. “The bottom line is when counties reach those thresholds, we want them to be rewarded. We hope that people will wear masks anyway.”

Gov. Gary Herbert, who on Thursday described the state as being on the verge of a “crisis of care,” concurred with Saunders that Iron County residents deserved to be rewarded, but added even they can do better.

“We’re trying to put the incentive in the right place. We want everyone to not be moderate, but low,” he said. 

At the start of that period, the governor ended a state of emergency where a color-coded system was used by the governor’s office to decide the risk level in each area. It was replaced with a more data-driven public health order, where the Utah Department of Health determines the status of each county based on the transmission rate and the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive.

Of the 29 counties in the state, 23 remain in the high transmission rate where masks are required, including Washington, Beaver and Garfield counties. Beaver County actually had lowered its rate to moderate over the last seven days, but counties need to maintain moderate numbers for two weeks to be lowered.

Kane County remains with five other counties in the lowest category where any face-covering recommendation is left to the locality and gatherings of 50 or less are permitted.

However, while not an order, the governor asked all Utahns on Thursday to keep all social gatherings to 10 people or less through Thanksgiving.

“We are going to need to find other ways to celebrate the holidays,” Herbert said, emphasizing hospitals nearing capacity throughout the state, including Dixie Regional Medical Center, which activated a surge intensive care unit last week after its ICU went beyond capacity.

“When we started this quest, our goal was not to overwhelm the medical system. We are very concerned about where we are going and we could have a crisis of care,” Herbert added. “The hospitals can’t keep up with the trend we have.”

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through Oct. 29, 2020. | Background photo by by mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

There were 120 new infections in Southern Utah reported by the Utah Department of Health Thursday, including 97 in Washington County alone. This increases the number of those newly infected with the virus locally in the last week to 702 – a 12.3% increase. For the first time since the pandemic began, the five-county area is averaging more than 100 new infections per day within a seven-day span.

There are now 1,510 people in Southern Utah who are actively infected with the virus according to the Utah Department of Health, or nearly one of every 100 people locally based on the U.S. Census population of 177,556 in the five counties.

Both of the people who died of COVID-19 in Southern Utah Thursday died at home, rather than at a hospital or long-term care facility. That included the first death in Beaver County, which had been the one Southern Utah county that had not recorded a death with COVID-19 as the cause. A 45- to 64-year-old female died at home in Beaver County, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

St. George accounted for 54 new infections on Thursday to once again lead the state in cities under 100,000 in population according to the Utah Department of Health.

The city is also very much on the radar for Greg Bell, who heads the Utah Hospital Association which oversees standards and crisis management for all of the state’s hospitals. 

The hotspot to watch is St. George,” Bell said. “Given the demographic in Washington County, that is something to be very concerned about.”

On Wednesday, Dixie Regional hit its high mark for the number of local residents hospitalized with the coronavirus at 33. The Southwest Utah Public Health Department brought that number down to 25 on Thursday, though Dixie Regional Medical Director Dr. Patrick Carroll said it is difficult to pin down a number of patients currently in the hospital because it is constantly changing right now.

The hospitalization numbers fluctuate hour to hour, so a number I give now will be different than later today,” Carroll said, noting that COVID-19 patients are a minority of those in the hospital but still add up to 30% more patients on top of what the hospital would already handle. “The idea is we want to stay away from crisis care. We’re not there yet and we don’t want to get there.”

According to Dr. Bryce Ferguson, director of the ICU at Dixie Regional, some nurses are now pulling 18-hour shifts, and mandatory overtime has been doubled to two extra shifts each month.

“Even with that, we are still short two nurse shifts,” Ferguson said. “I asked our nursing manager would they rather be here making more money or would they like to be home. The nursing manager just laughed. The caregivers would rather be home with their families.

Caregivers that handle COVID-19 patients at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. Undated photo. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Heather Anderson, who serves as a nurse in the ICU of Dixie Regional Medical Center, said when she has to see a COVID-19 patient, they have to quickly put on their hazmat suit within 30 seconds, enter the room and treat their patient in the negative-pressure room, take a minute or so to decontaminate and remove the suit, and move on to the next COVID-19 patient and repeat the process again, and again throughout their day.

As the patients are not allowed visitors, she has to relay messages from family, trying to give those thoughts through the loud motors and fans of their suits.

They asked me to whisper in his ear that they loved him and they were a good parent,” Anderson said of one recent patient, her voice breaking. “These patients are alone. They are very sick and we are in the room in what looks like spacesuits. Sometimes we are the only lifeline to the family. They are alone and they die alone.

But Anderson said that isn’t the worst part. She said the biggest frustration she has is after going home and getting on the internet to see people saying they will not wear a mask, or claiming the pandemic is exaggerated or a hoax.

“I’m pleading for help from the community. You get frustrated with the misinformation in the community on social media. We do get frustrated with people not trusting the public officials and you’ve even heard that it’s been called a hoax. It’s very real. It’s very real and it can be very exhausting,” Anderson said, adding that she counters that with strength she draws from her co-workers at the hospital. “The hope I get is from watching the doctors and the nurses and the respiratory therapists continue to take care of patients and to treat them like human beings and that gives me great hope in humanity.

Updated Oct. 29, 7 p.m.: Age of death of Beaver County fatality corrected to 45-64. Additional information and details including Utah Hospital Association citing St. George as the hotspot of most concern, comments from Dr. Patrick Carroll. Video added. County-by-county numbers updated.

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. 29, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 6,273 (100.3 new infections per day in seven days, rising since Oct. 27)

  • Washington County: 4,843 (85.9 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 940 (10.1 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 98 (1.1 per day, rising)
  • Garfield County: 101 (1.3 per day, dropping) 
  • Beaver County: 73 (1.1 per day, dropping) 

Deaths: 56 (1.1 per day, steady)

  • Washington County: 46 (1 new since last report: female older than 85 at home,)
  • Iron County: 3 
  • Garfield County: 5
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 1 (1 new: female 45-64 at home)

Hospitalized: 25 (dropping)

Recovered: 4,718

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,578 (rising)

Southern Utah counties in high transmission level as of Oct. 29 (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less): Washington (19.7% positive tests, 560.9 per 100,000 case rate), Beaver (8.5% positive tests, 304.0 per 100,000 case rate), Garfield (18.12% positive tests, 511.8 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in moderate transmission level (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less until Oct. 29):  Iron (9.7% positive tests, 256.0 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in low transmission level (masks recommended, gatherings to 50 or less): , Kane (5.3% positive tests, 129.7 per 100,000 case rate)

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

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