SALT LAKE CITY — Cases continue climbing and hospitals are overwhelmed, but Utah officials believe Gov. Gary Herbert's new health order will be the beginning of the end of the state's current COVID-19 surge.
"This will be the start of us being able to save our health care system," Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Monday.
Herbert and Dunn discussed the state's new 14-day COVID-19 health order at a Monday morning news conference. Watch the replay of the event below.
Also Monday, the state reported 2,247 new COVID-19 cases and two new deaths. The rolling seven-day average of positive cases is now at 2,437, with a 21.2% positivity rate during that time period. There are currently 444 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, a record-high number.
At the news conference, Herbert and Dunn answered questions and clarified information about the health order, which officially went into effect at 1 p.m. Monday. The order enacts a statewide mask mandate, restricts social gatherings for the next two weeks, and increases COVID-19 testing.
Herbert once again asked Utahns to take personal responsibility and adhere to the changes announced in the health order, which include limiting social gatherings only to those including people who live in the same household for the next two weeks. He remained optimistic that if Utahns abide by the health order, the state will start to see a decrease in cases.
"A time to reset, a time to reevaluate," Herbert said. "All of us can look for opportunities to improve."
Dunn, too, was optimistic about the order. Health officials will continue to look at the data to see if any further measures are needed after the two weeks are up, she said.
New COVID-19 cases
The health department now estimates there are 39,278 active cases of COVID-19 in Utah as of Monday.
The new numbers indicate a 1.7% increase in positive cases since Sunday. Of the 1,167,923 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 11.6% have tested positive for the disease. The state reported an increase of 9,106 tests conducted as of Monday.
Of the 444 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Utah, 185 are in intensive care units — the highest number of the pandemic so far. About 75% of all Utah's ICU beds are filled, while about 51% of non-ICU beds are occupied as of Monday, state data shows.
Both deaths reported Monday were men who were between the ages of 65 and 84 and were hospitalized when they died, according to the health department. One man was from Salt Lake County and the other was from Washington County.
Monday's totals give Utah 134,868 total confirmed cases, with 6,162 total hospitalizations and 661 total deaths from the disease. An estimated 94,929 Utah COVID-19 cases are now considered recovered, according to the health department.
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.
More information about Utah's health guidance levels is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-health-guidance-levels.
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.
Clearing up COVID-19 confusion
Last month, Utah officials enacted a new transmission index system for COVID-19, which replaced the state's previous color-coded guidelines system under the Utah Leads Together plan.
The transmission index effectively mandates masks for public settings in counties that are judged at the high transmission level for COVID-19. But Herbert said there has been some confusion about where and when masks are required, so state officials decided to mandate masks across Utah to clear up the confusion.
"We should see some results if we do what we're being asked to do," he said.
The mask mandate, which is expected to be continued indefinitely, comes after months of pressure from public officials, health care professionals and others on Herbert to enact such a policy. The governor said Monday the timing of the decision was based on the best data currently available to the state, though COVID-19 cases have been spiking for weeks.
And although Herbert's new health order comes after last week's election, the governor said politics had nothing to do with the decision. Since the pandemic came in a political year featuring a contentious presidential election, politics has sometimes gotten in the way of doing the right thing quickly to respond to COVID-19, Herbert suggested.
"We're talking about trying to find the right balance point," he said.
The goal is to balance protecting public health with minimum interference to Utah's economy, Herbert said.
For the next two weeks, people are asked only to gather socially only with those among their own households. That means people can't meet friends or family members who don't live with them at restaurants to share meals. However, this will be handled on the honor system — restaurants won't be responsible for asking customers to identify themselves as the same household when they dine in, Herbert clarified.
Private businesses must enforce mask-wearing and must be able to practice social distancing of at least 6 feet in order to operate, the governor added. If they can't accommodate customers practicing those two things, the business can't operate.
Herbert added that state officials didn't want to interfere with Utahns' First Amendment right to worship, so churches will be exempted from some of the health order requirements.
Additionally, the two-week "pause" on extracurricular sports and activities at schools does not apply to teams that are currently involved in championship or playoff games. Participants in these games will be allowed to invite up to two guests to watch the games in-person, Herbert said. These guests will need to wear masks and socially distant during the game, or the teams won't be allowed to play.
Increased testing means numbers remain high — for now
Last week, federal officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assured Utah leaders that the agency will replenish the state's supply of COVID-19 rapid tests whenever they run out, according to Dunn.
That means that the state will begin testing more people more often, even if they don't have symptoms of COVID-19.
All college students, as well as some high school students, will be tested regularly moving forward, according to the health order. High school teachers will be tested at least once a week, Herbert said.
Testing will also be expanded to people in the workforce, and the state's goal is to eventually expand so that testing is available to anyone who wants it, Herbert said. The rapid tests can deliver results in as little as 20 minutes and are less invasive than nasal swab tests, he added.
CDC officials also urged Utah to ramp up testing, especially within the 15-24 age group, Dunn said.
Yes, there are people that think this isn't enough. And some think it's too much. But let's agree on one thing: the lives and livelihoods of each and every Utahn matter. We must stand together behind this 2 week push. That is the only way it has a chance at being successful. https://t.co/lKX84F5JWS— Dr. Angela Dunn (@DrAngelaCDunn) November 9, 2020
Utah's current rolling positivity rate for COVID-19 is over 20%, which indicates that there are likely many asymptomatic people who have the disease but haven't been tested and are being missed by the state, Dunn said.
With the planned increases in testing, Utah health officials hope to capture more of these cases in communities. That will likely mean that in the short term, case count numbers will remain very high, Dunn added. However, this will allow health officials to more effectively locate areas where the disease is present, which means they will be able to prevent the spread in more areas of the state.
So while it might appear that COVID-19 in Utah is just as bad, or even worse, for the next few weeks, the increased testing should eventually push cases down and relieve some of the stress on hospitals in the long term, Dunn said.
"I really believe that if every Utahn adheres to the principles that were outlined by Gov. Herbert, we will start to see a decrease in our cases, and we need that urgently," Dunn said.