SALT LAKE CITY — Utah leaders and health officials are feeling a little better about the state’s COVID-19 situation as its running average nears Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal to limit the average to 500 new cases per day.
That said, they say it’s still premature to celebrate.
The good news is that the state’s seven-day running average dropped to 508.1 new cases per day on Thursday, according to Utah Department of Health data. It’s steadily dropped since hitting its current peak average of 671.9 new cases over a seven-day span reported by the Utah Department of Health on July 12, which equates to a 24% decrease over that timespan.
The state’s epidemiological curve entered an “incidence decline” phase last week and remained there as of Thursday’s update. It last hit that stage in early April, albeit when case numbers were much smaller.
As KSL.com previously reported, some of that decrease is due to a decrease of cases reported out of Salt Lake County — the county with the lion’s share of COVID-19 cases since March. The county’s running average dropped from 305.3 new cases per day on July 12 to 208.4 new cases per day after the county health department’s figures were released on Wednesday. That’s a 32% decrease in 2½ weeks.
Salt Lake and Summit counties were the first two areas in the state to issue requirements for face coverings in Utah. Both counties had their policies go into effect on June 27 and the two counties’ health departments have credited masks to the drop in cases.
Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said it’s clear that the drop in Salt Lake County is a key factor in statewide declines, but there are encouraging numbers elsewhere too. Take out Salt Lake County from the equation and the other 28 counties experienced a running total drop of 365.4 new cases per day on July 12 to 299.3 new cases per day, through Thursday’s numbers. That’s an 18% decrease in 2½ weeks.
“(Salt Lake County is) dropping quicker than our surrounding jurisdictions across the state; however, the good news is that, right now, all of our jurisdictions are seeing a decrease,” she said. “We’re going in the right direction, statewide.”
That leaves an important question: What’s causing the other areas of the state to see declines in new cases?
There aren't definitive answers yet, but there are a few factors in play, Dunn explained.
First, it could be tied to lower testing. State data shows a big dropoff in tests done after Pioneer Day — although some of the numbers aren’t complete. For example, there was an average of 7,850 tests taken from July 20 to Pioneer Day, July 24. That number includes retests. As of Thursday’s data, the average number of tests reported fell to 4,734 tests after the holiday.
It’s unclear why that is.
“That’s why we need to be very cautiously optimistic about our drop in case counts,” Dunn said, adding that the percentage of positive cases to tests has remained close to 9.5%.
“We aren’t seeing huge surges but it is something for us to keep an eye on, especially in this coming week as we finish out, sort of, that incubation period from Pioneer Day weekend,” she continued.
Face masks are another strong possibility, even if there are mandates in just Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, as well as Springdale. State health officials said Thursday that Herbert approved a request from Logan city officials to mandate face coverings in public.
Private businesses began creating their own mask policies for anyone visiting their stores. This included national chains like Walmart, Target, CVS and Walgreens, which all announced the policies in mid-July. Smith’s and Harmons are among local grocery chains that also implemented the policy. Although it should be noted that these policies haven’t been met with much enforcement, as the New York Times reported.
Still, if they are widely encouraged in businesses, it’s “definite” to help the cause, Dunn said.
Salt Lake County’s policy could also have an impact since it holds one-third of the state’s population and is situated between other highly populated counties.
“There’s also probably some spillover from, for example, the Salt Lake County mask order to Davis County or nearby jurisdictions, but these are all correlations, not causations,” Dunn said.
At the same time there has been a decline in Utah’s cases, the global argument for masks continues to be strengthened, said Ben Abbott, an assistant professor of environmental science at BYU. Studies show that even cloth masks can contain 90% of droplets from the mouth or nose, and scientists have tied droplets from breathing, sneezing, coughing and talking to the spread of COVID-19.
He said the data from countries all over the world is showing a correlation between masks and lowered cases counts.
Herbert invited Abbott to speak during Thursday’s press briefing so he could go over a recent study he co-authored that determined masks are working in lowering the spread of COVID-19.
“Countries that either had a mask culture to begin with — many countries in Southeast Asia, for example, have long used masks to prevent the spread of disease. They’ve had much lower transmission rates and substantially lower mortality rates,” Abbott said. “The second number is very important because it indicates that when masks are used, the disease is actually less deadly, even if you catch it.”
Abbott said the scientists are still trying to piece together why mortality rates are lower with masks, but the data is showing the connections there, too. When people are wearing masks, they help reduce the spread of droplets and thus lower the possibility of spreading COVID-19.
The studies also show they are completely safe for healthy individuals, added.
That’s not to say masks are a panacea for the coronavirus; they can cause a false sense of security. Abbott also urged people to follow social distancing and wash their hands thoroughly.
Even though there are countries that have managed COVID-19 well in recent months, the world was reminded this week that eliminating threats of the virus are still difficult. Hong Kong and Australia, two of the countries with relatively low outbreaks thus far in the pandemic, recently issued new guidelines in their countries following upticks there.
If Utah continues to lower case counts at the rate it has since July 12, leaders know there still will be outbreak risks in the future.
“We have to remember that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic with a novel virus,” Dunn said. “It’s impossible for us to predict how it’s going to act, so that’s what makes it (even) more essential that we understand that we’re going to have these lifestyle changes for at least another year, in terms of really being vigilant and staying home when we’re ill, wearing face masks in public, making sure we’re using good hand hygiene — those things are going to be really important for a while until we get through this and get a vaccine for COVID-19.”