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Utah state epidemiologist warns of shutdown, return to orange

The Utah Health Department provides new numbers every day detailing new cases of COVID-19. But the state's dashboard offers a deeper look into what the numbers mean.

SALT LAKE CITY– State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn is warning Utah about a possible shutdown if cases of COVID-19 continue to increase at a rapid rate. 

In a memo written by Dr. Dunn to the Utah Department of Health on Friday, she warned Utah is “quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown.” This comes after a week of record-breaking coronavirus case numbers in the state.

She mentioned Utah is in the “acceleration phase” of the pandemic and “this might be our last chance for course correction. Contact tracing and testing alone will not control this outbreak.” And if Utah can’t decrease the rate of infection by July, 1st, “we need to move the entire state to orange,” Dr. Dunn advised. 

According to Dr. Dunn, the step back to “orange” will “send the message to Utahns that this outbreak continues to be a serious problem, and state leadership is committed to saving lives and preventing a complete economic shutdown.”

Dr. Dunn noted Utah has seen an uptick in cases since May 27, 2020, 12 days after the state moved to “yellow.”

On Saturday, the health department confirmed 644 positive cases without knowing where exactly transmission is coming from. According to the memo, Utah’s current infection rate is 3.5 times higher than Colorado. 

Hospitalizations have been increasing along with positive cases. Dr. Dunn notes in the memo that if COVID-19 hospital trends continue, some Intermountain Healthcare hospitals will run out of conventional ICU beds by July. 

“About 8 percent will be hospitalized one to two weeks later and about 1% will die after about three weeks,” said Dr. Dunn. If case numbers remain the same, an average of 405 cases per day, “around 213 people will be hospitalized per week,” said Dr. Dunn.

It’s estimated that out of the 213 hospitalizations per week, 85 will be those considered “low risk” admitted. Out of hospitalizations, it’s predicted 17 will die and another 11 will die at home or in nursing homes. 

To minimize the spread of COVID-19 and to keep Utah’s economy open, Dr. Dunn stated there needs to be an average of 200 cases per day. 

In order to decrease the state’s case county, Dr. Dunn suggested mandating face coverings, either by government or business enforcement. 

Viral spread getting trickier to track

Health officials say the virus is already very widespread, and without aggressive contact tracing, it’s very hard to know who is infecting who.

Salt Lake County Health Department Spokesman Nicholas Rupp says, “Someone could have five or six potential exposures.  One of them may have been a family member, another may be attending a large community gathering.  It’s hard to know which of those potential exposures actually caused the infection.”

Overall, the county isn’t being hit as hard as some other portion of the state, but Rupp says they have some hotspots they’re concerned about.  Areas like West Valley and Glendale are two examples.  Rupp says they can’t confirm if large public events, like protests, have been increasing the spread.  So far, the county only has two cases that they believe were infected from gatherings like that, although, that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a lot of spread there, either.

“It’s really hard to pinpoint any one driving factor behind our increase,” Rupp says.

In the end, Rupp says the virus isn’t something that any health department can handle on their own.

He says, “We’re going to keep getting cases and more people are going to die if everyone in the community doesn’t start doing their part.  By ‘doing their part,’ I mean wearing their face covering whenever they leave home.”


Contributing: Paul Nelson