SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah approaches Pioneer Day, Gov. Gary Herbert on Wednesday reiterated his belief that Utahns will follow the example the pioneers set and do the right thing, helping the state meet its goals to stop the spread of COVID-19.
He also said a statewide mask mandate "still remains in the bag of tools" if the state doesn't meet the goal of getting a rolling seven-day average of new cases below 500 per day by Aug. 1.
The health department now estimates that there are 12,788 active cases of the disease in Utah. The rolling seven-day average number of positive cases per day is now at 627, and the positive test rate per day for that time period is now 9.5%, according to the health department.
Herbert remained optimistic about the state's current situation Wednesday.
“I hope as we celebrate Pioneer Day, follow their example and make something better as we work together," he said. "I believe we can do it. That’s the Utah way. I think better times are ahead of us."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, and Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition chair Jake Fitisemanu gave a COVID-19 update at a news conference Wednesday morning. Watch the replay of the event below.
New COVID-19 cases
Wednesday's totals give Utah 35,578 total confirmed cases, with 2,135 total hospitalizations and 260 total deaths from the disease. There were 10 new deaths reported Wednesday, but the total deaths count has only risen by nine because one death that was listed Tuesday was removed due to further investigation from the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner, according to the state health department.
The new numbers indicate a 1.6% increase in positive cases since Tuesday. Of the 481,402 tests conducted in Utah so far, 7.4% were positive for COVID-19. An increase of 5,959 tests conducted was reported Wednesday.
The state's COVID-19 hospitalization rate is 6%, where it has hovered for the last several days. There are currently 197 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, and 94 of those are in intensive care unit, or ICU, beds across the state, health department data shows.
About 62% of Utah's ICU beds were occupied as of Wednesday, according to state data. Just under 48% of non-ICU beds are currently occupied across the state.
The 10 deaths reported Wednesday were:
- A Davis County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was not hospitalized when she died
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 45 and 65, was hospitalized when he died and was a long-term care facility resident
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was hospitalized when he died
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84, was not hospitalized when he died and was a long-term care facility resident
- A Salt Lake County woman who was over the age of 85, was not hospitalized when she died and was a long-term care facility resident
- A Salt Lake County male who was between the ages of 15 and 24 and was not hospitalized when he died
- A Salt Lake County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized when she died
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was not hospitalized when he died
- A Sevier County woman who was between the ages of 45 and 64, was not hospitalized when she died and was a long-term care facility resident
- A Weber County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84, was hospitalized when he died and was a long-term care facility resident
A total of 22,532 Utah COVID-19 cases are now considered recovered, the health department reported Wednesday.
Test results now include data from PCR tests and antigen tests. Positive COVID-19 test results are reported to the health department immediately after they are confirmed, but negative test results may not be reported for 24 to 72 hours.
The total number of cases reported by the Utah Department of Health each day includes all cases of COVID-19 since Utah’s outbreak began, including those who are currently infected, those who have recovered from the disease, and those who have died.
Recovered cases are defined as anyone who was diagnosed with COVID-19 three or more weeks ago and has not died.
Deaths reported by the state typically occurred two to seven days prior to when they are reported, according to the health department. Some deaths may be from even further back, especially if the person is from Utah but has died in another state.
The health department reports both confirmed and probable COVID-19 case deaths per the case definition outlined by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. The death counts are subject to change as case investigations are completed.
Information is from the Utah Department of Health and coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts. For more information on how the Utah Department of Health compiles and reports COVID-19 data, visit coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts and scroll down to the “Data Notes” section at the bottom of the page.
COVID-19 in Pacific Islanders
Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition chair Jake Fitisemanu shared a story Wednesday about Mālō Ma’aelopa, a Samoan man who was a survivor of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed one out of every five Samoans. Ma’aelopa was left to bury thousands of people in unmarked graves throughout the Samoan islands, Fitisemanu said.
Now, 102 years later, Ma’aelopa's great-granddaughter Luisa is a community health worker on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah.
"Bilingual, trusted by the community, and trained in evidence-based public health, Luisa and her colleagues are uniquely poised to address this pandemic in our community in ways that government agencies or health care systems may not be able to," Fitisemanu said.
In Salt Lake County, Pacific Islanders account for the highest COVID-19 infection rate and the highest hospitalization rate of any ethnic group, Fitisemanu said. In the state overall, Pacific Islanders have the second-highest rate in each category, he added.
State data shows Pacific Islanders or native Hawaiians account for 3.9% of all COVID-19 infections in Utah, despite making up just 1.6% of the state's population as a whole. Fourteen Pacific Islanders or native Hawaiians have also died from the disease in Utah, state data shows.
They are one of several minority ethnic groups that continues to be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Hispanics and Latinos account for 39.3% of all Utah COVID-19 cases — the highest of any ethnic group — but make up only 14.2% of the state's population according to state health department data. Blacks and African-Americans account for 2.5% of COVID-19 infections but make up only 2.1% of Utah's population.
By comparison, whites make up 78% of Utah's population but have accounted for 38.8% of all COVID-19 cases.
"The data that is shared here from this podium pretty much every day confirms that COVID-19 isn't impacting all groups with the same level of severity, and native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are among the hardest hit in our state today," Fitisemanu said.
Every Pacific Islander has been affected by the crisis in one way or another, he added.
There is a high prevalence of underlying medical conditions in Pacific Islanders, but many other factors have contributed to this, he said. COVID-19 is more likely to spread through large, multi-generational households, and a large portion of Pacific Islanders work in essential services industries and many have cultural practices that sometimes don't align with social distancing guidelines, Fitisemanu added.
He called for non-Pacific Islanders to work with the community as leaders work to stop the spread of the disease. The community is committed to the health guidelines officials have laid out, including physical distancing, wearing face coverings and practicing good hygiene, he said.
"It's not easy, but if we work together, we can do more to protect our families, to preserve our cultures and to prevent COVID-19 from taking more from us than it already has," Fitisemanu said.
Governor responds to ProPublica report
A ProPublica story published Wednesday called into question the state of Utah's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically with regard to the role of the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission. The commission was created through a bill in the Utah Legislature earlier this year and includes health officials, legislators and business leaders that advise the governor on how to respond to COVID-19 issues.
The report suggests that the commission and the state shifted from trying to stop the spread of the disease to determining how much reopening of the economy the state's hospitals could stand to bear before being overwhelmed.
Herbert said Wednesday that hospital capacity is just one aspect of the items the state considers when developing policies. The state has also evolved and changed what is being looked at as officials have learned more about COVID-19.
"I don't know if there's been a shift; it may be just the natural evolution of what's happened in the marketplace," he said.
Herbert added that the state has taken action to preserve hospital capacity, such as temporarily postponing elective surgeries earlier in the pandemic. Right now, hospitals have ample space for patients if the cases stay at the current level, he said.
ProPublica also reported that Dr. Joseph Miner, the health department's executive director, has not been involved in several key decisions related to COVID-19 response.
Miner has health conditions that put him at high risk for COVID-19, and is, therefore, he unable to be out in the field regularly. So, Herbert appointed former Utah National Guard Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton earlier this year as acting head of the health department to help with things Miner is unable to do. Burton, who is also currently running as an unopposed Republican for Utah House District 66, has experience in disaster response.
Herbert said Wednesday that despite being sidelined, Miner has been involved in almost all key health decisions, either directly during meetings or through a phone call immediately after meetings. There have been one or two key decisions Miner hasn't been involved in, but those are an exception and not the rule, the governor added.