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Antigen tests add COVID-19 cases in Utah; schools consider next steps

Gov. Gary Herbert addresses reporters in a news conference on Thursday, July 16, 2020. Photo: Facebook Live

SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Health reports 954 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, bringing the state’s total county to 31,131.  The state noted one additional death on Thursday, bringing that total to 234.

On paper, 954 new cases may seem like an alarming new number, but health officials say a lot of context needs to be added to that total. 

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn says 50 positive results came from an electronic reporting delay, plus about 250 cases  should have been reported earlier this week.  Also, 251 of those new cases came from a relatively new kind of testing that the state is giving its support to.  It’s called antigen testing, and like the more common PCR tests, they can tell if a patient currently has COVID-19.  Both tests are administered through a nasal swab, but, Dunn says there is one major difference.

“Results come within an hour vs. waiting a couple of days,” she says.

The PCR test looks for viral RNA, while the antigen test looks for a specific protein found in the COVID-19 coronavirus.  Dunn says there aren’t a lot of clinics doing the new kind of exam, but some centers have been conducting these tests for the past six weeks. 

“They started in June, but we wanted to verify the accuracy of the test first and the accuracy of the data coming in before we added it to our public counts,” she says.

Now that the accuracy checks have been completed, Dunn says the state will add those numbers to the daily COVID-19 counts.

She says, “These charts present the most accurate picture of the current status of the COVID-19 outbreak here in Utah.”

With the 251 confirmed cases since early June, along with the positive results that were delayed, the actual one-day increase could be closer to 400.  Dunn says the state’s rolling seven-day average is 619 new cases per day, and that’s the number she says people should really be paying attention to.

“That’s why we really encourage people to look at that seven-day rolling average vs. the day-to-day fluctuations because that’s really the picture of where we are and where we’re going in this outbreak,” Dunn says.

Antigen tests: results are faster

“Testing has been a challenge since the beginning,” Gov. Gary Herbert said. “We’re making renewed efforts to make sure that tests are available to everybody.” 

The Utah Department of Health released a video explaining these differences to the public.

State health officials say both the backlog of COVID-19 cases and the antigen test results are now included in their data at coronavirus.utah.gov

The mask ask 

Dr. Tom Miller with the University of Utah Health system, urged Utah residents to wear masks. 

“Put your masks on. Let’s get through this and then you can take those masks off,” he said. 

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“Let’s as a state work together and rise to the occasion,” Herbert said. “It’s going to take all of us working together.” 

In recent days, debates over mask wearing have turned political. A large crowd showed up to a Utah County Commission meeting Wednesday, prompting the body to end the meeting early over concerns about health and safety. 

“Masks will be provided for all students” when they return to school in Utah this fall, Herbert added. 

Utah schools look ahead to fall 

“It’s imperative, I think, that we open our schools,” Herbert said. “This generation needs to have education. …I hope everybody appreciates the hard work of our superintendents, our school board members, our principals, our teachers, as they wrestle with this very difficult and emotional issue.” 

With that in mind, Herbert said state leaders are working to make sure all children have the opportunity to attend school in person. 

“I’m also announcing today a change in our color-coded guidelines,” he said, announcing modifications to the ‘orange’ category in the color-coded system.  

The change to the “orange” status mean schools in Salt Lake City and county will be able to open without starting the school year remotely. Currently, Salt Lake City School District’s orange status would prevent them from having classes in person in August. 

Distance learning and online schooling will still be available to those who do not feel comfortable sending their children to school. 

How in-person school might work

Dr. Lexi Cunningham, the former superintendent of Salt Lake City Schools, now works with the State Superintendents Association. She said across the state, school districts have reviewed what worked and what didn’t when the schools went online in the spring. 

“Every plan in the state of Utah will address seven principles: movement, duration, proximity, group size, respiratory output, touch and congestion,” Cunningham said. 

Each district will likely look different, Cunningham said, based on their community’s individual needs. 

“Every plan is different, as is every district,” she said, saying it was important to state leaders to make sure parents have choices in education. 

“Student safety is a priority for all of our districts,” she said. 


How To Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus

COVID-19 coronavirus spreads person to person, similar to the common cold and the flu. So, to prevent it from spreading:

  • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Keep children and those with compromised immune systems away from someone who is coughing or sneezing (in this instance, at least six feet)
  • If there is an outbreak near you, practice social distancing (stay at home, instead of going to the movies, sports events, or other activities.)
  • Get a flu shot.

Local resources

KSL Coronavirus Q&A 

Utah’s Coronavirus Information 

Utah State Board of Education

Utah Hospital Association

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Utah Coronavirus Information Line – 1-800-456-7707

National Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Commonly asked questions, World Health Organization

Cases in the United States