Utah ends emergency response to COVID-19; local testing sites close

ST. GEORGE — On Thursday, the last cars were lining up at the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Tech Ridge in St. George. 

Stock image | Photo by
kovop58, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

As far as the state of Utah is concerned, it was the last day of the pandemic – one that for the number of lives lost is the worst in American history. 

The Utah Department of Health is officially ending its emergency, pandemic footing for COVID-19 on Friday a little over two years and a month after it was first declared in the state by then-Gov. Gary Herbert. And the state is now moving to what Gov. Spencer Cox, who said he dislikes the word “endemic,” calls a “steady state” footing.  

The move comes after officials said the wave of the omicron variant at the start of the year, which caused the highest number of local daily infections of the entire pandemic, created a kind of herd immunity between those who are vaccinated against the virus and the large number that have had the disease in the last three months.

This move to a steady-state is a response to the situation,” Nate Checketts, the executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said. “This is an operational decision.”  

The biggest immediate change will be the closure of the free, drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites including the Tech Ridge site run by TestUtah and the TourHealth testing site at the Cedar Fun Center in Cedar City. Funding provided by the state was what allowed the testing to be free.

A single vehicle goes through the drive-thru COVID-19 testing site at Tech Ridge on its last day, St. George, Utah, March 31, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Now, people will need to rely on their own medical plans and services for testing, in which cost is dependent on insurance. There are also less reliable, at-home tests that can be purchased at stores, though the federal government is still providing up to eight free at-home tests at this link.    

St. George News has also learned that local firm SoftCell Laboratories will continue to provide some free drive-thru COVID testing at its sites in St. George and Cedar City. 

Though SoftCell Chief Operating Officer Lisa Justesen told St. George News the no-cost testing will be limited to “people who face health, financial, educational, or housing barriers that make it difficult to get health coverage and basic healthcare services.” They will also offer travel testing at the kiosk locations at a rate of $100 per test.

At Tech Ridge, where there had been a line of hundreds of cars during the worst of omicron three months ago, there was about one car per minute driving up Thursday morning. 

There are other signs that COVID infection levels have gone to a below-pandemic level in Southern Utah. The number of daily infections locally, which had been as high as 722 at one point in January, has been between six and 10 in the last week, according to the Utah Department of Health. 

And the amount of the virus level found in sewage water at local sites, which the health department said it will continue to use to determine the state of the virus, has been either declining or at a steady level for the last month. 

In the past, epidemiologists and medical experts have said that the natural progression and mutation of a virus is to become more contagious but less harmful. “A virus doesn’t survive by killing you or keeping you home, it survives by spreading,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, told St. George News back in December 2020.  

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles that cause COVID-19 | Photo by Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/CDC via Associated Press, St. George News

The omicron variant as well as the new BA.2 omicron variant discovered in the last three weeks (which has already supplanted omicron as the most predominant variant in the U.S., according to the CDC) have progressively been more contagious but less virulent. 

While the state has declared the pandemic over, doctors and officials at St. George Regional Hospital said they are taking a more cautious approach – though a reduction in COVID-19 patients from dozens to single-digits is allowing elective surgeries to go on again and near-normal operations to resume, a much-needed break for the staff after nearly a year. 

Part of that caution relates to a year ago, when there was a lull in COVID patients at the local hospital, including a short time when there were no COVID patients at the St. George hospital in April 2021. 

While he said there is still some uncertainty with the disease, Dr. Patrick Carroll, the medical director of St. George Regional Hospital, said he is hopeful that 2022 is similar to when the 1918 flu pandemic returned to being an endemic in 1920. He said that will likely be determined by the behavior of the disease next fall.

Will it be like the flu, where there are occasional spikes, loss of lives among vulnerable populations and calls for flu shots? Or will it roar back to pandemic levels? 

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” Carrol said. “And we may see that happening with COVID. It may not look the same as influenza, but they may look similar. They may rhyme.”

The final numbers

On Thursday afternoon, the Utah Department of Health released its last daily dump of COVID-19 data to the media and the general public through its coronavirus.utah.gov website. The department began releasing daily data in March 2020 and switched to Monday through Friday updates last summer. Health officials say that there will now be weekly updates but no longer a daily reading of new infections and deaths in the state. 

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah from March 2020 to March 2022 | Background photo by mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The final total numbers released Thursday for the pandemic in Southern Utah: 63,424 infections, 3,059 people hospitalized and 645 locals dead.

While it is unclear exactly how many died locally in the 1918 to 1920 influenza pandemic, it is likely that the COVID-19 pandemic has far exceeded it based on the much larger local population now and a comparison of the state fatality totals as a whole.

A total of 4,714 Utahns died in the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Utah Department of Health. That compares to the 2,915 Utah residents who died in the flu pandemic of 1918 to 1920. 

As a percentage of the population, the early 20th-century pandemic was still deadlier as, according to the U.S. Census, there were 437,000 Utah residents in 1918 compared to 3.2 million now. 

The big factor that Utah health officials say will determine if there’s the potential for a ramp back up to an emergency will be the status of the hospitals as far as the number of COVID patients and capacity. 

And Carroll said St. George Regional Hospital is a far cry from January when it had the most patients at once it has ever had. He said ultimately, whether people call it a pandemic or endemic doesn’t matter compared to the number of people locally in the hospital with COVID, or dying from it. 

“We peaked at between 90 and 95 patients with COVID in the hospital back in January. We’ve been in the single digits for several weeks,” Carroll said. “Interestingly, on the two-year anniversary of admitting our first patient to the hospital with COVID, we once again had one patient with COVID.”

The Utah Department of Health said that if COVID does surge back once again, they will be ready and prepared to ramp back up again. Though they would also face a state Legislature that would have to approve any declared health emergency beyond 30 days after the governor’s powers to do so were curtailed last year.

Dr. Leisha Nolen, the state epidemiologist, said the department will ultimately be looking less to the number of new infections on a daily basis as trends seen in the number of COVID patients in hospitals and any sharp rise of the virus detected in sewer readings. 

If COVID-19 and its variants continue to trend toward more contagious but less severe, the number of infections may be irrelevant, she said.

Graphic by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality showing the amount of COVID-19 detected in sewage as of March 31, 2022 | Photo courtesy of Utah Department of Environmental Quality , St. George News | Click to enlarge

“Where we will look at is who goes to emergency rooms,” Nolen said, adding that they will also continue studying the sewage water. “We can see whether COVID comes out of that water.”

As of Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, COVID was present in the three main sewage treatment facilities in Southern Utah but not increasing or decreasing. It had been decreasing over the last month.

Other steady-state changes come in the pocketbook

Besides testing sites and daily statistics, the other big change is the closure of the department’s free monoclonal antibody treatments sites, including one that was set up in St. George

Monoclonal antibodies are one of the treatments used to help those who have already fallen ill from COVID-19 to prevent more severe illness and death. 

The department said people will now have to seek treatment through their doctor or the hospital, and the cost will depend on people’s health insurance. The federal government has a COVID treatments site to find out where treatments are available. 

According to the site, one local pharmacy – Hurricane Family Pharmacy – has more than half of Southern Utah’s supply of the game-changing COVID drug Paxlovid, which, according to studies by the Federal Drug Administration, can prevent serious illness in high-risk patients who get COVID by 89%. Hurricane Family was visited by the governor last week in recognition of its efforts to be an early adopter of COVID vaccines and treatments.  

Staying free: Vaccines

One thing that will remain free of charge because of federal funding will be COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. And public health entities like the Southwest Utah Public Health Department will, for the time being, continue to provide free walk-in vaccine shots. 

Medical workers fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic inside the St. George Active Life Center on Feb. 11, 2021. St. George, Utah | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

This week, the CDC approved a second booster shot for those ages 50 and over and those ages 12 and over who received Johnson & Johnson as their first booster. 

While studies are continuing, those conducted thus far show that while vaccines offer longer and stronger antibody protection than the natural immunity from getting COVID itself, it is still a waning immunity. And during the omicron wave, those with the vaccine and the booster had 95% protection from getting infected as opposed to the around 65% for those who have not gotten the booster.

Waning even more is the natural immunity for those who are unvaccinated but have had COVID. The most recent study on natural immunity from COVID-19 without vaccination published in the journal Science in January found that such immunity can last from three to eight months. 

Nolen said getting annual or bi-annual booster shots will be a key to keeping COVID-19 in an endemic phase. But not even a third of Utahns have been boosted. 

“Less than 30% of our community has that extra protection,” Nolen said. 

In the last daily numbers Thursday, Southern Utah still had a majority of residents without the full, unboosted vaccination: 47.3%. The percentage of locals boosted stood at 20.7%.

Among local communities, the Ivins/Santa Clara area has the highest immunity with 53.9% fully vaccinated and 27.1% boosted. The lowest is Hurricane and LaVerkin with 40.4% fully vaccinated and 17.2% boosted. However, as far as boosted residents, the Cedar City area is slightly lower at 17.1%.    

Chart shows recommendations for each COVID-19 Community Level | Chart courtesy of Centers for Disease Control, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Also coming to an end is the state’s COVID-19 Transmission Index, first started in October 2020, that set counties as low, mid and high as far as virus transmission levels. 

There will still be a way to determine the spread rate of the virus in each county, but it will be through the federal CDC Community Levels index.

In the end, all five of Southern Utah’s counties were at the low level and all are also low in the CDC Community Levels Index. 

Like at the start of the pandemic, when it was the last local county to see its first COVID-19 infection,  Beaver County is COVID-19 free without a recorded case by the Utah Department of Health in 14 days.  

The toll of those lost, and the toll on mental health

There are no plans at this point for any kind of massive physical memorial at national or state levels for all of the lives lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. The closest thing locally is a memorial bench dedicated last week for St. George Police Officer Adam Ashworth, who died of COVID-19 last July.

But Southern Utah, the state and the nation has never seen a loss of life like this.

Nurses and doctors attend to a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator at a Utah hospital in an undated photo | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the single largest loss of human life from one event in U.S. history, exceeding the 750,000 lost in the Civil War, the 675,000 lost in the 1918 flu pandemic and both world wars, both Persian Gulf wars and the Vietnam War combined. According to the CDC, there are at least 140,000 families in the United States that have lost one or both parents of children under 18 in the last two years. 

That loss of life, the lockdowns, the quarantines and other pandemic pressures have not just taken a toll on physical health, but on mental health as well. 

While a state study last October said there was no pandemic-related increase to mental health issues like suicide or treatment, Carroll said the pandemic shined a light on mental health issues that were already there. 

“Mental health concerns are real and they’re in some cases very serious and they’re every bit as important as physical health concerns,” Carroll said. “What we’ve seen with the COVID pandemic has uncovered already existing mental health concerns. And there’s still a lot of stigma around that. And people often are afraid to get help, and don’t know where to go for help. And so we’re looking at ways to connect the dots and really empower people to know where to go.”

Carroll said a big help will be the Washington County Receiving Center in Hurricane, which broke ground just last week and will provide walk-in help for people facing mental health crises. 

Long COVID and other post-COVID uncertainty

On an almost weekly basis, medical researchers and doctors are seeing new effects that having COVID leaves on the human body long after the disease has worked its way through the system. 

One study alarming medical experts released in just the last week states that there’s a 40% chance of developing Type 2 diabetes within a year of having COVID-19.

(L-R) COVID-19 long-haulers Lisa O’Brien, Jolynne Nay, Ruslana Parker, Amy Cuddeback, Tanya Hovey, Casey Yak and Cheryl Young on the Dixie State campus, St. George, Utah, Nov. 12, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

But no effect has been seen more than the neurological and physical condition known as long-haul or long COVID-19, which has left thousands of Southern Utahns with such effects as fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog and trouble sleeping. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has classified long COVID as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Lisa O’Brien, who created the Utah COVID-19 Long Haulers group in June 2020, said even two years later there is no end in sight for many who first became infected more than two years ago. And for those recently infected who overexert themselves just after having COVID, that struggle may be just starting.

“For many, it’s just the beginning learning how to live a life that looks very different than it previously did with an illness that we are still learning about,” O’Brien said. “Two years later and there are still little answers and no cure.”

For local long COVID sufferers, there remain few to no local resources.

“They still are lacking help,” O’Brien said. “Really the closest place for them to go is post-Covid programs in SLC.”

In February, Intermountain Healthcare – the parent of St. George Regional and Cedar City hospitals – started a new hotline for a long COVID navigation program that can be reached at 801-408-5888.

O’Brien also said a bill before the U.S. Senate, the CARE for Long Covid Act, would help fund additional long COVID programs in Utah and her group is lobbying for the support of Sen. Mitt Romney, who serves as the COVID point-man for the Senate minority but has yet to voice an opinion on the act. 

New post-COVID habits

For all the losses that the pandemic brought, Carroll said it’s not a bad thing to say that the pandemic left benefits – including in the medical field. 

From left, Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks with St. George Regional Hospital Administrator Mitch Cloward and Medical Director Dr. Patrick Carroll following a tour of the hospital’s COVID-19 wards, St. George, Utah, Sept. 3, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The development of mRNA vaccines holds promise for other diseases, including forms of cancer. Pfizer says an mRNA-based vaccine for HIV is currently in clinical trials. 

Carroll said at the hospital, the growth of telehealth has been a huge benefit to both patients and doctors. They also saw a growth in techniques created when the hospital was beyond capacity for post-procedure patients to be monitored at home, rather than having to spend the night in a hospital room. 

Carroll said he hopes there are also some habits the public developed during the pandemic that will continue, especially staying home or wearing a mask to work and in public when feeling ill, rather than coughing and sneezing germs on everybody else.

“My hope is that there’s not anybody that walks away from this over the last two years and takes the approach of ‘We’re going to do things exactly the same way we did before.’ I think that would be a missed opportunity,” Carroll said. “I hope we’ve learned that we can take the stigma away from masks, that moving forward, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s influenza, whether it’s some of these other diseases that if we’re feeling unwell, that it’s OK (to) put a mask on to protect those around us until we’re feeling better.”

As far as stigmas, the pandemic will also be remembered as a time of misinformation from theories on vaccines to unproven treatments including multiple studies, including one released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, that found ivermectin had the same effect on COVID-19 as a placebo. 

A resident receives a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine inside the St. George Active Life Center for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s COVID-19 second-dose vaccination clinic on April 6, 2021. St. George, Utah | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

But Carroll said there should also not be a stigma around those whose passions align with COVID-19 information that may not be backed by scholarly data. 

“To demonize people that have bought into some of the misinformation, I think it was disingenuous and not the right approach. The critical thing to remember is what patients are looking for is hope and treatment,” Carroll said. “Sometimes when there aren’t answers, sometimes when the answer is not what we want them to be, that doesn’t eliminate our desire as humans for help and wanting to do something because doing something feels better than doing nothing.”

As Carroll reflected on two years of COVID-19, he took a long pause when asked what he will remember about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I would say people are good. People are kind,” Carroll said. “And we’re all trying to do our best.”

Updated April 1, 2022, 1:30 p.m.: Additional clarification on limited free COVID testing being offered by SoftCell Laboratories.

Southern Utah coronavirus count as of Thursday, according to Utah Department of Health

Positive COVID-19 tests: 63,424 (7-day average of 7 per day)

  • Washington County (Low in CDC Index): 43.26 per 100K rate in 14 days
  • Iron County (Low):  36.96
  • Kane County (Low): 101.09
  • Garfield County (Low): 59.41
  • Beaver County (Low): 0

Hospitalized: 7

Deaths: 645

New infections per day in Southern Utah:

  • Friday (March 26): 7
  • Saturday (March 27): 8
  • Sunday (March 28): 3
  • Monday (March 28): 6
  • Tuesday (March 29): 7
  • Wednesday (March 30): 10
  • Thursday (March 31): 8

Current Utah seven-day average: 111

Fully vaccinated in Southern Utah: 123,745 (47.3% fully vaccinated)

Vaccinated and boosted in Southern Utah: 54,243 (20.7% fully vaccinated and boosted)

  • St. George: 50.95% fully vaccinated, 22.42% boosted   
  • Cedar City: 43.29% fully vaccinated, 17.11% boosted    
  • Washington City: 46.36% fully vaccinated, 20.91% boosted   
  • Ivins/Santa Clara: 53.93% fully vaccinated, 27.11% boosted   
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 40.36% fully vaccinated, 17.23% boosted   
  • Enterprise/Veyo/Springdale/Hildale: 45.97% fully vaccinated, 22.36% boosted   
  • Beaver/Garfield/Kane counties: 46.18% fully vaccinated, 20.08% boosted   

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Those who can currently get the first dose of the vaccine: Everyone ages 5 and over. Those 5-18 can only receive the Pfizer vaccine. Use vaccinefinder.org to find clinics that have the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Those who can receive the second dose: Those who received their first injection 28 days or more before the appointment time.
  • Those who can receive a first booster dose: Those who received Pfizer or Moderna at least five months ago. Those who received Johnson & Johnson at least two months ago. Booster shots can be of any form of COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Those who can receive a second booster dose: Those who received Pfizer or Moderna at least four months ago and are 50 or older. Those ages 12 and older who received a primary vaccine and a Johnson & Johnson booster at least four months ago. Booster shots can be of any form of COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The Southwest Utah Public Health Department continues walk-in appointments. Some pharmacies and stores are offering walk-up appointments. Check the links below before going.
  • Must wear a short-sleeve shirt at appointment and should have a personal ID.
  • Vaccines are free of charge.

Washington County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department St. George office, 620 S. 400 East, St George

For hours and more information: Click here 

Iron County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Cedar City office, 260 DL Sargent Dr., Cedar City, 84721.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Kane County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Kanab office, 445 N. Main St., Kanab.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Garfield County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Panguitch office, 601 Center St., Panguitch.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Beaver County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Beaver Office,  75 1175 North, Beaver.

For hours and more information: Click here 

St. George Regional Hospital/Intermountain Healthcare:

Where: 400 East Campus St. George Regional Hospital,  544 S. 400 East, St. George.

Reservations: Click to register

FourPoints Health:

Where: Various locations.

For hours and more information:: Click here

Revere Health:

Where: Revere Health Campus,  2825 E. Mall Drive, St. George.

Reservations: Call (435) 673-6131.


Where: 745 N Dixie Dr in St. George and 915 Red Cliffs Dr. in Washington City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 1189 E. 700 South in St. George and 3520 Pioneer Parkway in Santa Clara.

Reservations: Click to register

Lin’s Marketplace:

Where: 1930 W. Sunset Blvd. and 2928 E. Mall Drive in St. George, 1120 State St. in Hurricane and 150 N Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Smith’s Food and Drug:

Where: 20 N. Bluff St. and 565 S. Mall Drive in St. George and 633 S. Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 275 S River Rd. in St. George.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 2610 Pioneer Rd. in St. George, 625 W. Telegraph St. in Washington City, 180 N. 3400 West in Hurricane and 1330 S. Providence Center Dr. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Family pharmacies:

Where: Several locations

Reservations: Use vaccinefinder.org to find a location near you

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.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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