SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 statistics continued trending in a positive direction Thursday, but state leaders say they are still far from wanting to "spike the football" and declare pandemic success.
Utah’s number of COVID-19 cases increased by 502 from Wednesday, with nine more deaths reported, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The health department now estimates that there are 12,136 active cases of the disease in Utah. The rolling seven-day average number of positive cases per day is now at 508, according to the health department. The positive test rate per day for that time period is now 9.6%.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday again stressed the importance of following public health recommendations the health department has set forth, such as social distancing, good hand hygiene and wearing masks.
“This is not like the typical flu, it’s worse than the flu,” Herbert said.
Also Thursday, state leaders released a lengthy document outlining guidelines for COVID-19 response in schools, and provided updates on the effectiveness of wearing masks.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, along with Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, Utah State Board of Education Superintendent Sydnee Dickson and Brigham Young University researcher Dr. Benjamin Abbott, gave a COVID-19 update Thursday morning.
Watch the replay of the event below.
New COVID-19 cases
Thursday's new numbers indicate a 1.3% increase in positive cases since Wednesday. Of the 524,367 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 7.6% were positive for COVID-19. As of Thursday, the number of tests conducted in Utah has increased by 6,176, the health department reported.
There are currently 217 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, according to the health department. Of those, 87 are occupying intensive care unit, or ICU, beds at hospitals.
Just under 70% of all ICU beds in the state of Utah are occupied as of Thursday, state data shows. About 54% of all non-ICU beds are occupied in the state.
Herbert and health department state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn provided more detail about COVID-19 Thursday in an effort to dispel some rumors about the disease.
Both said it's not just a flu. Though its mortality rate in Utah is comparatively low, COVID-19 has still killed five times more people than the flu killed during the last flu season, Dunn said.
Thursday's totals give Utah 39,696 total confirmed cases, with 2,346 total hospitalizations and 300 total deaths from the disease. The total deaths count has only gone up by eight because a death that was previously included has been removed from the count for further investigation, the health department reports.
The nine deaths reported Thursday were:
- A Davis County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized when he died
- A Davis County man who was over the age of 85 who was under hospice care outside of a hospital
- A Juab County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Salt Lake County man who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Salt Lake County woman who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was hospitalized when she died
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Salt Lake County woman who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Utah County man who was over the age of 85 and was hospitalized when he died
An estimated 27,261 COVID-19 cases are considered recovered, the health department reported.
Health officials and state leaders are also concerned with the long-term effects of the disease that can linger even after people are considered recovered, Herbert said. Some have reported losing their sense of smell or taste for extended periods of time. Disease experts are still learning about these effects, but they should be a concern to everyone, and a further incentive to take action to stop the spread, Herbert added.
There are some statistics that remain promising, though. Utah's transmission rate, which refers to the likelihood that a person infected with COVID-19 will transmit it to someone else, is now below 1.0, Dunn said. That means that someone with the disease is likely to transmit it to less than one person.
The state's rolling seven-day averages show that Utah has moved from a plateau in new cases to a decrease over the past several days, Dunn added. It's important to keep that downward momentum going, especially as schools begin reopening.
“It is really important that we continue on this trajectory," Dunn said.
Mask mandates are showing signs of being effective, too, Dunn added. In the last several weeks since Salt Lake County's mask mandate went into effect, there has been a sharp decline in new cases in that area, she said.
For much of the pandemic, Salt Lake County has been responsible for more than half of all COVID-19 cases in Utah. Now, the county accounts for 40-45% of cases, Dunn said. That shows that cases are dropping in Salt Lake County, but the entire state is seeing a decline, as well, she added.
COVID-19 response manual for schools released
Utah on Thursday released a 102-page document outlining guidelines for school response to COVID-19.
School districts across the state have been instructed to formulate a plan by Saturday for how they will operate during the pandemic. Many districts will reopen for in-person instruction for the fall semester, but Herbert has mandated masks for all students, teachers, faculty, staff and visitors at school buildings.
The document provides guidance for how schools should respond if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19, as well as how schools can maintain a healthy learning environment and protect their schools.
Herbert praised the work of education and health officials who compiled the document.
"Our education folks have been working literally around the clock," he said. “I hope we appreciate our teachers."
We are happy to announce the creation of the COVID-19 School Manual, just posted to https://t.co/nRq19pA8EO— State of Utah COVID-19 Response (@UtahCoronavirus) July 30, 2020
This guide is for schools to understand how to properly respond and to keep schools safe and open.
The school response manual outlines various scenarios that might arise as schools reopen, according to Dunn. The policies are designed to keep everyone at school buildings safe while allowing for children to have access to a classroom learning setting that can be very valuable, she added.
Any child who has any symptoms of COVID-19 will be staying home from school, she said.
Children who have been exposed to the disease will be allowed to attend school if their parent or guardian wants them to, so long as they do not have any symptoms, are being screened for symptoms regularly, wear a mask while at school and socially distance as much as possible.
This policy is referred to as "modified quarantine," Dunn said. Similar policies have been used at essential businesses during the pandemic and have been proven to be effective. As part of modified quarantine, children will be excluded from extracurricular activities and will be discouraged from doing anything outside the essential classroom setting, such as going to the mall or the movie theater with friends, Dunn added.
Additionally, if there is a COVID-19 case in a classroom, the manual recommends that classroom transition to virtual learning for two weeks. If there are 15 or more cases in any one school, it's recommended that the entire school transition to virtual learning for two weeks, Dunn said.
She added that decreasing community spread of COVID-19 will also reduce its spread in schools as students and teachers return to classrooms. The manual will be revised as needed, but it will be a learning process for all involved.
“This is going to be a dynamic process moving forward," Dunn said. "It’s new for all of us.”
BYU study finds masks are 'essential tool'
Herbert also invited Brigham Young University researcher Dr. Benjamin Abbott to speak on the effectiveness of masks during Thursday's news conference.
Abbott was involved with a research project that looked at 130 individual studies on the effectiveness of wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The project found that masks are effective in stopping the spread of the disease.
“It is now abundantly clear that masks are an essential tool," Abbott said. "When masks are used, the mortality rate goes down."
He added that mask usage could be "our bridge back to normal" amid the pandemic.
During the beginning of the pandemic, it was suggested that masks weren't effective in stopping the spread. However, things have changed rapidly throughout the course of the pandemic, and now it's clear that masks are useful, Abbott added.
He said despite their effectiveness, masks aren't a "silver bullet" that will solve all coronavirus-related problems. They can give people a false sense of security that can cause them to loosen their guard in stopping the spread, Abbott said. Masks are most effective when they are used in conjunction with other preventative measures, such as social distancing, he said.
The research project also found that masks are completely safe for regular usage, Abbott said.
Herbert added that wearing masks shouldn't be a political issue. Rather, it should be a matter of protecting yourself and your neighbors.
“It shouldn’t be political at all," he said. "Let's all do our part."
Acting health department head moving on
Retired Utah National Guard Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton has been serving as the acting head of the Utah Department of Health for the past several months of the pandemic, but his tenure in that position will come to an end Friday, Herbert said.
Rich Saunders, who has been part of the COVID-19 response team and has been integrating into the state's unified command, will take over as acting head of the department, Herbert said.
Health Department Executive Director Dr. Joseph K. Miner has a health condition that puts him at a higher risk for COVID-19 and has prevented him from being out in the field and on the front lines of Utah's response.
Burton has experience in disaster management and response, so he was tapped to serve in Miner's stead. He will return to his regular day job in Payson after Friday, the governor added.
“We thank General Burton for his work," Herbert said.
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.
Data included in this story primarily reflects the state of Utah as a whole. For more localized data, visit your local health district's website.
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.