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Gov. Gary Herbert talks about the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

Steve Griffin, KSL

Alcohol, school quarantine policies adjusted as Utah sees record-high 30 new COVID-19 deaths, 3,203 cases

By Jacob Klopfenstein, KSL.com | Updated - Dec. 17, 2020 at 2:12 p.m. | Posted - Dec. 17, 2020 at 10:26 a.m.


9 photos

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's number of COVID-19 cases has increased by 3,203 on Thursday, with a record-high 30 more deaths reported, according to the Utah Department of Health.

"This is a tragic reminder that while there is a lot of hope on the horizon with the vaccine, we still have quite a long ways to go and we need to continue being vigilant to protect individuals against unnecessary illness and death," health department state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said at a Thursday news conference.

Despite the high death total, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said Utahns can be optimistic since the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in the state this week.

"The good news is we see some hope and optimism for the future," Herbert said Thursday.

Also Thursday, state leaders announced changes to Utah's school quarantine guidelines and an end to the 10 p.m. curfew for selling alcohol at bars and restaurants.

State leaders discussed the changes at two separate Thursday morning news conferences. Herbert spoke first during a PBS Utah news conference, his final appearance on the station's monthly events with the governor. Utah Department of Health interim director Rich Saunders and Dunn joined Herbert at a second news conference after the PBS event.

Replays of both events are provided below.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, along with Utah Department of Health interim director Rich Saunders and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, spoke at a COVID-19 news conference Thursday. Watch the replay of the event below.


Watch the replay of Herbert's PBS Utah news conference below.


School quarantine guidelines adjusted

Quarantine guidelines for students at Utah schools will change after the first of the year, Herbert announced.

Students who had a close contact with another student who tested positive for COVID-19 will be allowed to stay in the classroom, so long as all students were wearing masks at the time of the contact, he said. Students who test positive for the disease will still need to quarantine at home, and any students who weren't wearing masks while they were in close contact with someone who tested positive will also need to quarantine.

Data shows that classrooms are a low-risk environment for COVID-19 transmission, so state leaders made the decision to update those guidelines, Herbert said. Only about 1% of students who have quarantined after a potential exposure at school have gone on to test positive for the disease, officials said.

The governor added that he believes most teachers would welcome measures to keep students in classrooms because in-person learning is more effective than remote instruction.

State leaders hope to vaccinate Utah teachers by mid-January, and in the meantime, teachers are able to get tested for COVID-19 every week if they wish to do so, Herbert said.

"That will help give them some confidence, I think, going forward and hopefully boost morale," he said. "Our teachers have (shown) up every day to do their part, and so we thank them, we recognize their good work."

Gov. Gary Herbert talks about the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.
Gov. Gary Herbert talks about the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

Dunn said teachers and staff should be confident that they will still be safe after the changes.

"We feel really good that this is a safe way to go," she said.

The mask mandate for K-12 schools will be extended until at least January 21, Saunders said. That will give state leaders some time to assess the effectiveness of the quarantine and testing changes.

The threshold recommendations for moving to remote learning after a COVID-19 outbreak will also change in the new year, Saunders said. For schools with over 1,500 students, health officials will recommend that if more than 1% of the student body tests positive for the disease, the school should move to remote learning. For schools under 1,500 students, the recommendation will remain that if 15 or more students test positive, the school should move to remote learning for at least ten days.

If a school does meet that threshold, they will also have a "test to stay" option, Saunders said. Everyone at the school will be offered a rapid antigen test, and those who test negative for COVID-19 will be allowed to continue in-person instruction, he said. Those who test positive for the disease or who decline to be tested will need to move to remote learning for at least ten days.

"The purpose of 'test to stay' is to promote consistent and safe in-person learning," he said.

Students at colleges and universities will all be tested within ten days of returning to their campuses from winter break, Saunders said. After that, instead of testing all students at least once every two weeks, institutions will be responsible for testing students if they meet certain criteria, Saunders added.

Rich Saunders, interim executive director for the Utah Department of Health, left, and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn share a laugh following a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.
Rich Saunders, interim executive director for the Utah Department of Health, left, and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn share a laugh following a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

Alcohol curfew lifted for bars and restaurants

Also Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced that the 10 p.m. curfew for selling alcohol at restaurants and bars in the state will be lifted starting Friday.

Restaurants and bars in the state agreed to several provisions to keep their spaces safe for patrons as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Herbert said. They're willing to require social distancing, maintain limited capacities and require mask wearing at all times unless patrons are eating or drinking.

Additionally, people will have to be stationary inside the restaurant or bar while they are eating or drinking, so people can't walk around a bar carrying a drink in their hand, Herbert said.

New COVID-19 cases

The health department now estimates there are 56,228 active cases of COVID-19 in Utah as of Thursday. The rolling seven-day average number of positive cases per day is now at 2,570, down from about 2,816 this time last week, Dunn said.

The positive test rate per day for that time period is now 22.3%. That number has decreased by nearly 4% from last week, when the rolling percent positive average was about 26.2%, Dunn added.

Thursday's new numbers indicate a 1.3% increase in positive cases since Wednesday. Of the 1,613,248 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 15.1% have tested positive for COVID-19. A total of 12,885 new people were tested for COVID-19 as of Thursday out of an additional 18,175 tests conducted, state data shows.

There are now 556 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Utah, state data shows. Of those, 211 are occupying intensive care unit beds across the state of Utah. About 96% of all ICU beds in the state of Utah are occupied as of Thursday, and state data shows ICUs at the state's 16 referral hospitals are now over capacity. About 57% of non-ICU hospital beds in the state are now occupied, according to the health department.

Hospitals are finding ways to treat critically ill patients outside of their normal ICU capacity, Dunn said. Therefore, the ICU utilization for referral hospitals is listed above 100% on the state's coronavirus dashboard Thursday.

"Our hospitals need us, they can't tolerate yet another surge after the December holidays," Dunn said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn talks about the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Utah during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn talks about the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Utah during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

The 30 deaths reported Thursday were:

  • A Morgan County woman over the age of 85 who was not hospitalized at time of death
  • A Weber County woman between ages 65-84 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • An Iron County man between ages 65-84 who was not hospitalized at time of death
  • A Washington County man between ages 65-84 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • Two Salt Lake County women older than age 85 who were long-term care facility residents
  • A Salt Lake County man older than age 85 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Weber County man between ages 45-64 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Weber County woman older than age 85 who was not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Carbon County man between ages 45-64 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Cache County man between ages 65-84 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Salt Lake County woman between ages 65-84 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Salt Lake County woman older than age 85 and was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Weber County man between ages 45-64 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • Two Utah County women between ages 65-84 who were long-term care facility residents
  • A Box Elder County woman between ages 65-84 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Salt Lake County woman between ages 65-84 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Davis County man between ages 65-84 who was not hospitalized at time of death
  • A Sevier County woman older than age 85 who was not hospitalized at time of death
  • A Salt Lake County man between age 65-84 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Sanpete County man between ages 65-84 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Weber County woman between ages 45-64 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Salt Lake County man older than age 85 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Salt Lake County woman older than age 85 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Cache County man between ages 65-84 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Utah County man between ages 65-84 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Utah County man between ages 65-84 who was a long-term care facility resident
  • A Utah County man between ages 45-64 who was hospitalized at time of death
  • A Weber County woman between ages 65-85 and was hospitalized at time of death

The increased number of deaths Thursday is likely a result of the November COVID-19 surge Utah experienced, Dunn said. Case counts since Thanksgiving, while still high, have been lower than expected, so it's likely that death counts won't be as high in the coming weeks, she said.

"We can anticipate better days ahead because we have been decreasing our daily case counts and thus we'll have fewer deaths," she said.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunnchecks her notes before talking about the pandemic and the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Utah during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.
State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunnchecks her notes before talking about the pandemic and the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Utah during a briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

Thursday's totals give Utah 243,918 total confirmed cases, with 9,791 total hospitalizations and 1,126 total deaths from the disease.

Only one county changed classification this week in the state's COVID-19 transmission index system. Rich County moved from the low transmission level to high due to its 14-day case rate per 100,000 people and seven-day average percent positivity.

A total of 26 Utah counties are now listed at the high transmission level. Three rural Utah counties — Daggett, Piute and Wayne — remain at the low transmission level. No counties are listed at the moderate transmission level.

The state's emergency health order mandating masks in all public settings has been extended through at least January 21, Saunders announced Thursday. That means that masks will be required to be worn in all counties, regardless of their transmission level.

As a new year approaches, state officials urged Utahns to remain vigilant in practicing mask wearing, social distancing, staying home when sick and other hygiene protocols to stop the spread of the disease.

"I am asking everyone to recommit to these behaviors," Saunders said.

Vaccine data added to state dashboard

Vaccine data has now been added to the health department's coronavirus dashboard at coronavirus.utah.gov.

Data shows 407 vaccines have been administered in Utah so far, with the majority in Salt Lake, Utah and Washington Counties. About 15,000 doses of the vaccine have been shipped to Utah as of Thursday.

State leaders anticipate that 154,000 doses of the vaccine will make their way to Utah through mid-January as part of the state's first phase of vaccine administration. Front-line health care workers, residents and staff at long-term care facilities and teachers will be the first groups to be inoculated.

Surveys conducted several weeks ago indicated that about 70% of Utahns definitely will or are likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available to them, according to Dunn. To achieve herd immunity, health officials believe that 60-80% of Utahns will need to be vaccinated.

Dunn said the survey data is a "good starting point," and she anticipates that confidence in the vaccine will grow as it continues being distributed and administered.

"This is really an exciting step forward in our ability to control the pandemic," Dunn said.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that for schools with over 1,500 students, health officials will recommend that if 10% of the student body tests positive for the disease, the school should move to remote learning; under the new guidelines, the correct number is if more than 1% of the student body tests positive, classes will move online.

Contributing: Xoel Cardenas, KSL.com

Methodology:

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.

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Jacob Klopfenstein

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