SALT LAKE CITY — There aren’t yet any confirmed Utah cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, but state health officials are making sure people are aware of the situation.
The Utah Department of Health held a press conference Thursday afternoon to explain how the state’s health systems and hospitals are preparing for the potential spread of the illness.
Health officials in Utah have investigated 12 people for potential infection of COVID-19, but none have tested positive, said Dr. Joseph Miner, executive director of UDOH.
"This coronavirus issue that we’re dealing with is changing every day," Miner said at the press conference. "It’s important that we be here to communicate with each other and update what is going on."
Even though there were several people who tested positive for the virus and are heading back to Utah, those aren't being counted as Utah cases since they were infected elsewhere, Miner added.
For the general public in Utah, the risk of being infected with COVID-19 is still considered low, but health officials do expect the disease to come to Utah at some point, he said. Miner believes Utah will be able to respond well if and when cases start coming in.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Thursday that some leadership meetings in the weeks leading up to general conference in April have been postponed amid the spread of the virus. The church is also discouraging people from traveling from outside the U.S. to attend general conference.
As of Wednesday, there were 15 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thursday's press conference also included officials from several Utah hospital networks. All said they are confident that they have prepared well for a potential COVID-19 outbreak and will be able to respond well to any Utah cases of the disease.
People who have come in contact with the virus and who believe they are exhibiting symptoms of the disease such as fever, coughing and shortness of breath should contact their physician or primary care provider, said UDOH state epidemiologist Angela Dunn.
The CDC is recommending people postpone all nonessential travel to China and South Korea, Miner said. Older adults and people with chronic medical conditions also should avoid traveling to Iran, Italy and Japan.
Dunn is leading a statewide effort between health officials and hospitals to prepare for a potential COVID-19 outbreak, she said. Though she reiterated that the disease isn't spreading in Utah and the risk for Utahns to become infected is still low, it could soon become an outbreak similar to what is being seen in Japan, Italy and China, she said.
On Wednesday, the CDC announced that the first U.S. case of a person contracting the disease through "community spread" was detected in California.
The CDC has advised states to be prepared for “community spread” of COVID-19, which refers to the spread of the disease through patients who haven’t recently traveled to regions where the disease is present and haven’t come in contact with people infected with the disease.
“This development is certainly concerning and it represents a turning point in this outbreak," Dunn said, referring to the California case of infection by community spread.
The California person's infection puts health officials on higher alert for the virus.
If there is a confirmed Utah case, health officials will notify media members and the public within 24 hours, Dunn said. However, they will also release limited information about any person who is infected in order to protect their privacy, she said.
The department is also working with translators and interpreters to make sure the communication is accessible to all, Dunn added.
People who test positive for the virus are typically quarantined for 14 days, Dunn said. If they don't exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, the quarantine will usually be lifted.
Health officials stressed that common-sense practices such as staying home when you're sick and washing hands regularly can help stop the potential spread of the disease.
Dunn said at this point, face masks are not useful for the general public. They are more for use by people who are already sick to prevent those people infecting others, she said.
Andrew Pavia, chief of the University of Utah Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, said little is known about how children respond to the virus. Health officials believe some children are being infected but not getting very sick, he said.
"We think this will pose less of a risk to children," he said.
For some diseases, children can act as amplifiers and can spread it further, but it's unknown if that will be the case for coronavirus, Pavia added. If it becomes clear that the disease is spreading among children, state officials may need to consider closing schools around Utah, he said.
Miner said state officials are continuing to communicate with federal health officials and the CDC every other day. The department also holds a conference call with local health officials and hospital personnel multiple times per week.
"We're communicating very well," he said.