SALT LAKE CITY — Utah surpassed 1,000 COVID-19 deaths for the first time Thursday as the state health department reported 3,401 new cases and 21 more deaths.
A total of 1,016 Utahns have now died from the disease, according to the Utah Department of Health.
"We mourn each and every one of those losses," Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said at a Thursday news conference.
While he acknowledged the grim deaths milestone, the governor noted that the daily COVID-19 case numbers are lower than health officials expected after the Thanksgiving holiday.
Utah's rolling seven-day average number of positive cases per day is now at 2,816, according to the health department. The positive test rate per day for that time period is now 26.2%.
Also Thursday, state officials announced a new COVID-19 contact tracing process, and Herbert announced that Utah teachers have been moved to the front of the line to receive vaccines in the first phase of Utah's rollout, along with health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.
Teachers and other school staff will be inoculated by the end of December or early January, Herbert said. The altered timeline for teachers not only will protect them and keep their classrooms safe, but will also help schools avoid the disruptive "ping pong effect" of moving back and forth between in-person and at-home instruction, he added.
"We need teachers to be able to teach," the governor said. "This will help minimize disruption for families at home."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, along with Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, health department immunization program manager Rich Lakin, and Governor's Office of Management and Budget interim executive director Phil Dean, provided a COVID-19 update at a news conference Thursday morning.
Watch the replay of the news conference below.
New COVID-19 cases
The health department now estimates there are 59,889 active COVID-19 cases in Utah, an estimate that dipped below 60,000 Thursday for the first time since Nov. 20, according to state data.
Thursday's new numbers indicate a 1.5% increase in positive cases since Wednesday. Of the 1,539,603 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 14.7% have tested positive for COVID-19. The state reported an increase of 9,187 new people tested, according to the health department. A total of 19,230 more tests were conducted as of Thursday.
State officials were expecting a bigger surge, with daily case counts in the 4,000-5,000 range, after Thanksgiving. That hasn't happened, and Herbert attributed that to the fact that Utahns took social gathering more seriously during the two-week "hard reset" health order in November before the holiday.
"Still too many, but much smaller than what we anticipated could happen," the governor said.
There are 554 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Utah, state data shows. Of those, 220 are in intensive care units across the state. Just under 90% of all ICU beds in Utah are filled as of Thursday, including about 94% of ICU beds in the state's 16 referral hospitals. About 55% of non-ICU hospital beds are occupied Thursday in Utah, state data shows.
The 21 deaths reported Thursday were:
- A Box Elder County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Davis County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized when he died
- An Iron County woman who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- An Iron County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized when he died
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was not hospitalized when he died
- Four Salt Lake County men who were between the ages of 65 and 84 and were hospitalized when they died
- A Salt Lake County woman who was between the ages of 25 and 44 and was hospitalized when she died
- Two Salt Lake County men who were between the ages of 65 and 84 and were residents of long-term care facilities
- A Salt Lake County woman 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 65 and 84 and was not hospitalized when she died
- A Salt Lake County woman who was over the age of 85 and was hospitalized when she died
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was not hospitalized when he died
- A Tooele County woman who was between the ages of 25 and 44 and was hospitalized when she died
- A Uintah County man who was over the age of 85 and was not hospitalized when he died
- A Utah County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Utah County man who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Utah County man who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
Health department state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn noted that Thursday is the third day in a row Utah has reported over 20 deaths in a single day. The deaths reported over those days are likely due to the November surge in cases, she said.
Even though the number of people who die from COVID-19 makes up a very small percentage of those who become infected with the disease, it's still important to do everything possible to prevent deaths, Dunn added.
"We still must make every effort to do our part to protect the lives and livelihoods of Utahns," she said.
Thursday's totals give Utah 225,946 total confirmed cases, with 9,187 total hospitalizations since the pandemic began. A total of 165,042 Utah COVID-19 cases are now considered to be recovered, according to health department data.
New contact tracing procedures
Dunn on Thursday announced a new automatic contact tracing procedure for COVID-19.
Starting Friday, people who test positive for COVID-19 will receive a text from the health department instead of a call, Dunn said. The text will include a link to a secure form where they can list information for any other people they came in close contact with.
The new system aims to speed up the initial investigation process for contact tracing, Dunn said.
Health department officials will never ask for personal information through a text message, Dunn added. People should only provide that information through the secure form, she said.
The text message will also include a health department phone number that people can call if they don't want to use the online form.
Teachers move to front of vaccine line
Teachers have done a "remarkable" job this year in adjusting their education plans to suit the rapidly changing pandemic situation, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox said Thursday.
"We're very excited for the opportunity to elevate teachers," Cox said. "This is an exciting time, it is a rare opportunity to celebrate."
In a statement Thursday, Utah Education Association President Heidi Matthews praised the decision to move teachers and school staff further up in the vaccine line.
"Teachers and school staff risk their health each day by being in school face-to-face with students," Matthews said. "It is critical those dedicated public school employees who elect to receive the vaccine, many of whom are at-risk themselves, have convenient access as soon as feasibly possible."
As Utah transitions from Herbert's administration to Cox's, the first, second and third priorities for the new administration will be getting people vaccinated, Cox said.
The goal is not to see vaccine doses sitting on shelves, he said. In addition to teachers, the first phase of vaccinations in Utah will focus on health care workers, as well as residents and staff of long-term care facilities.
"This really is the miracle we've all been praying for," Cox said. "Those shots, those vaccines will literally save lives."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve Pfizer's vaccine later this afternoon. After its approval, about 154,000 vaccine doses will be shipped to Utah in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's proportional allocations, state officials said.
Those doses will likely be shipped to the state next week, health department immunization program manager Rich Lakin said.
Somewhere between 60% and 80% of Utahns will need to get vaccinated for the state to achieve herd immunity, officials said. It's anticipated that that will happen sometime in the summer.
Herbert urged Utahns not to let their guard down in the meantime.
"We need to not relax, not give up, but stay the course," 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.
Referral hospitals are the 16 Utah hospitals with the capability to provide the best COVID-19 health care.
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.
For deaths that are reported as COVID-19 deaths, the person would not have died if they did not have COVID-19, according to the health department.
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.