Estimated read time: 9-10 minutes
Editor's note: The data reported in this story was based on information collected and analyzed on Tuesday. For the latest COVID-19 numbers, visit KSL.com's Coronavirus page.
SALT LAKE CITY — It's clear COVID-19 hasn't gone away.
Utah surpassed 2,000 COVID-19 cases in a day last week for the first time since late January, and the state's seven-day rolling average of over 1,600 cases per day is also the highest since then, according to Utah Department of Health data.
This is somewhat surprising considering the favorable trends the Beehive State experienced throughout the spring and early summer. The seven-day rolling average fell as low as 201 new cases per day on June 1, which remains the lowest it has gotten since late May 2020.
Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician for Intermountain Healthcare, said last week that children are a big factor for Utah's rise in cases — which have steadily increased since June 1 but continued at a faster rate since about mid-August. His colleague, Dr. Brandon Webb, also an infectious diseases physician for Intermountain Healthcare, added that he believes the Labor Day holiday may also play a factor in the number of new cases.
But what about location? Can the location of new cases offer a better picture of the latest COVID-19 wave to arrive in Utah? Here's what the data shows.
Where new cases are happening
There are two ways to show where cases are spreading the most: total cases and case rates. Total cases tend to lean toward higher-populated areas, while case rates provide a scale between new cases and population.
For this analysis, KSL.com looked into recent cases reported by health departments instead of counties. The state is broken down into 13 local health districts.
Let's start with the total number of new cases between June 1 and Tuesday's COVID-19 update.
When you break it down by pure numbers, Salt Lake County still has the most cases. That's not surprising considering it's the most populated county in Utah, nearly doubling any other county in the state, per 2020 U.S. census data.
Utah COVID-19 cases from June 1 through Tuesday's update
- Salt Lake County: 25,201
- Utah County: 16,654
- Davis County: 8,782
- Weber-Morgan: 7,127
- Southwest Utah: 6,727
- Bear River: 4,256
- Central Utah: 2,528
- TriCounty: 2,270
- Tooele County: 2,242
- Southeast Utah: 1,079
- Wasatch County: 831
- Summit County: 678
- San Juan: 231
Source: Utah Department of Health data
The Salt Lake County Health Department has reported a little more than 25,000 new cases since June 1. It's accounted for about 32% of all Utah cases since June 1, but that's still below the 36% it accounts for in terms of all cases reported in Utah since March 2020.
Unsurprisingly, the stats follow this trend. The next four health districts in terms of highest case counts are Utah County, Davis County, Weber-Morgan and Southwest Utah, which are also in the top-five in terms of population, along with the Salt Lake County Health Department.
So what if this was adjusted to scale? This is where you see new trends emerge that weren't seen before in previous statewide upticks.
Unlikely COVID-19 case rate leaders
Two of Utah's most rural areas are where the state's highest case rates are currently happening, according to state health department data. As of Tuesday, the TriCounty (northeastern Utah) and Central Utah health departments carried seven-day rolling averages of 97.6 and 97.1 cases per 100,000 residents, respectively.
Both of those rates are more than three times the current case rate in Salt Lake County. Combined, there are close to 135,000 Utahns within the nine counties —Daggett, Duchesne, Juab, Millard, Piute, Sanpete, Sevier, Uintah and Wayne — that make up the TriCounty and Central Utah health departments; Salt Lake County's population is close to nine times that, per 2020 census data.
What's more is that neither the TriCounty nor the Central Utah health departments held particularly high case rates back when Utah's seven-day running average for case counts reached its low this year on June 1. TriCounty's rate held steady at 10.3 cases per 100,000 while Central Utah's dropped to 4.4 cases per 100,000 at the time.
In TriCounty's case, its case rate is the highest it has ever been since COVID-19 was first documented in Utah. The seven-day running average surpassed 100 cases per day briefly last week, compared to its previous high of 78 last November, according to the health department.
"This is bigger than anything we've ever experienced as far as COVID," said Liberty Best, the spokeswoman for TriCounty Health Department, in an interview with KSL.com. "Last week ... the TriCounty area had over 400 COVID-19 cases that are brand new — and that's more than what we've had in a week since the start of COVID. So, it's been a little intense in terms of COVID cases."
Central Utah, Tooele County and Southeast Utah, which are second, third and fifth in current case rates in the state, are all relatively close to the highest rates within those districts since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
COVID-19 seven-day running average case rates as of Tuesday
- TriCounty: 97.6
- Central Utah: 97.1
- Tooele County: 79.3
- Bear River: 58.8
- Southeast Utah: 57.5
- Southwest Utah: 57.2
- Davis County: 57.1
- Wasatch County: 54.9
- Utah County: 50.9
- Weber-Morgan: 50.6
- San Juan: 36.4
- Salt Lake County: 29.1
- Summit County: 24.1
Source: Utah Department of Health. Note: Case rate is based on cases per 100,000 residents
The Summit County health district currently holds the lowest rate with a running average of 24.1 cases per 100,000 residents, followed by the Salt Lake County, San Juan County, Weber-Morgan and Utah County health departments.
While all five health districts have also experienced upticks in case rates over the past few weeks, their spikes are nowhere near as noticeable as the current leaders. For instance, the Summit County Health Department reached a seven-day running average of 1.7 cases per 100,000 on June 1. The county also holds Utah's highest case rate average for any period of time during the pandemic, reaching 157.3 cases per 100,000 on Jan. 10.
A link in the data?
What's interesting is how the current local health department case rates mirror the state's vaccination data at the top and bottom. That is, the state health department reports that the TriCounty (29% fully vaccinated, 36% receiving one dose) and Central Utah (33% fully vaccinated, 39% receiving one dose) are two health departments with the lowest vaccination rates in Utah.
Best told KSL.com that there are some discrepancies between the state health department data and TriCounty's own calculations, although both are "low" and not where local health officials want them to be.
Much like the state as a whole, older residents are most likely to be vaccinated within the TriCounty health district. Still, the group with the highest vaccination rate in the district, Duchesne County residents 70 to 79 years old at 76%, falls behind the state average. Utah Department of Health data shows that nearly 95% of all Utahns aged 70 to 79 are vaccinated.
Meanwhile, the two health districts with the highest vaccination rates — Summit County (72% fully vaccinated, 82% receiving one dose) and Salt Lake County (56% vaccinated, 63% receiving one dose) — have the lowest case rates.
The order of case rates doesn't quite go in the same order as the vaccination rate for the nine other health districts in between; however, that could be because the other districts have very similar vaccination rates and case rates. All nine remaining districts have fully vaccinated rates hovering between 40% and 51% and seven of those nine have case rates at between 50 and 59 cases per 100,000 people.
The state health department reports that unvaccinated Utahns are 5.9 times at greater risk for testing positive for COVID-19, 6.8 times at greater risk of being hospitalized and 5.1 times at greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than vaccinated Utahns, based on trends over the past four weeks.
While seven-day running average case rates among fully vaccinated Utahns are up since June 1 — from 8.2 to 80.3 per 100,000 — the case rates for unvaccinated Utahns are inching closer to the highest they've ever been during the pandemic. The state health department data shows the case rate for unvaccinated Utahns was 580 per 100,000, as of Tuesday; the current record is 740.8, which was recorded on Nov. 22, 2020, and before vaccines were approved.
The hospitalization rates among unvaccinated Utahns also surged past all previous records this month. In fact, the state health department reported on Tuesday there are 581 hospitalizations tied to COVID-19, which is close to the most it's ever reported at one time.
So, what has COVID-19 been like in areas with less-vaccinated areas?
Trying to reverse trends in rural Utah
The scene has been a bit chaotic for doctors and nurses in northeastern Utah. There are just two hospitals within the TriCounty Health Department and both are "very full," according to Best. Add a record week of new cases and more hospitalizations are likely coming.
What makes the situation there worse is it's not like hospitals can transfer every patient elsewhere on a whim. Since other state hospitals are filling up with COVID-19 patients and intensive care units are above thresholds, there isn't much space for new patients anywhere.
The department has thrown everything imaginable out there trying to persuade residents to get the vaccine, but it's been an uphill battle as a result of misinformation dating back to the start of the pandemic, Best said. Since everyone, including scientists and medical professionals, have the same starting place in terms of COVID-19 knowledge, there's been a lot of information thrown out into the universe — real or fake.
It's something she doesn't believe is unique to northeastern Utah.
"It's hard to weed through the opinion, the misinformation and the facts. And that is definitely something that has been challenging, I'm sure, statewide," Best said.
But there are other difficulties within the TriCounty Health Department and rural Utah in general. Most parts of the district are spread out, so many residents don't have the same access to information as residents in more urban areas in the state. Experts point out that many people in rural Utah don't have cable or satellite, and they get most of their information online.
"And where is the misinformation? The internet," Best said. "It's just weeding through what is true and what is not. I think that is definitely a big challenge."
To that end, TriCounty health officials are trying to find innovative ways to get facts across to residents. They recently sent out a letter to every mailbox and P.O. Box in the region informing them about the threat COVID-19 poses local hospitals. The concern there is that it will lead to more unnecessary deaths not just from COVID-19, but from other causes due to the lack of available care. Unfortunately, the two hospitals were full by the time the letter arrived just because there are that many cases.
Health officials also went online to combat the misinformation there. The health department started a social media video campaign sharing real stories from residents in the area who have battled COVID-19.
"We're trying to get as much truth about everything out there as possible," Best said. "It's very real. We want to protect our health care, we want to protect our community."
That's also why she shares with others around her that she's vaccinated. She hopes her neighbors will do the same to help reverse the trends impacting rural Utah at the moment.
Best points to vaccines like one for chickenpox that was developed in her lifetime. She grew up with that being a "normal thing" but it's now something her children don't really know because of vaccines.
"I think it would be amazing if the next generation would be able to look at their parents and say, ask 'what is COVID?'" she added. "Wouldn't that be amazing? We can get there."