Governor rejects 2nd request to move Southern Utah to yellow risk level, plans to reconsider over weekend

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert holds his face mask during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah on Thursday, April 9, 2020. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert has rejected a second request by local leaders to reduce coronavirus-related restrictions in Southern Utah, but will reconsider the request over the weekend.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during his daily coronavirus press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 30, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

“They’re going to at least wait through the weekend,” St. George Mayor Jon Pike, one of the local leaders who made the request, told St. George News. “Our transmission rate is apparently a little high.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, tapped by Herbert to run the daily operations of the Utah Department of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic, told the St. George City Council during its Thursday night meeting that he was in favor of moving Southern Utah to yellow. 

“It looks like you qualify. But ultimately it’s a decision the governor will make: You look pretty solid in Washington County,” Burton told the council over the Zoom app.

Pike, who has also been in conversation with Herbert, said he is satisfied with the communication stream at this point between local officials and the state. He remains optimistic a lower risk level, which would open up all businesses with precautions and recommend groups to gather in groups of 50 or less, is still within reach.

St. George Mayor Jon Pike speaks at the 2020 Dixie Transportation Expo during an introduction of the Easy Ride autonomous shuttle being highlighted at the expo, St. George, Utah, Feb. 11, 2020 | Photo by Andrew Pickney, St. George News

“I’m just pleased we’ve had some good dialogue with the governor, Gen. Burton, our local health department and local elected officials,” Pike said. “I’m confident we’ll be able to move to yellow soon.”

On Friday, Washington County passed the century mark for coronavirus cases confirmed among residents in a report by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Of the 103 people who have tested positive for the virus, 31 positive tests were reported since Sunday –a 43% increase.

Washington County accounts for 75% of the 138 coronavirus cases in the five-county Southern Utah area. The public health department said 90 people have recovered from the virus in Southern Utah.

Department officials and local leaders have said a better gauge of the status of the problem would be hospitalization and deaths, and for the entire week, that number has been steady: Three hospitalizations of Southern Utah residents. Three people locally have died  – two of whom have been in Washington County – with the most recent being Tuesday.

Pike said he has been told by Mitch Cloward, administrator of Dixie Regional Medical Center, that the hospital has plenty of capacity at the moment. While it typically has 24 intensive care unit beds, the hospital now has the ability to staff 89 ICU beds and has 79 ventilators on hand. There are 332 total beds, with the ability to add 80 to 100 beds if necessary, according to Pike.

Pike and Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist sent the request Wednesday to Herbert after a previous request was rejected last week. 

However, there are some locally who say local leaders are rushing to reopen businesses at the expense of public health. 

Sign outside the Applebee’s restaurant on River Road in St. George, Utah, on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

St. George attorney Jinks Dabney, who serves on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s Utah Advisory Committee, said he and his wife will continue to self isolate at home and take precautions.

“Lowering levels does not affect the virus one bit. It has a mind of its own and it, and only it, will determine when it is safe to go out again,” said Dabney, who added he is concerned for his wife, four children and 13 grandchildren. “I don’t want what you catch because you have a right to catch it, because I have a public health and personal right for you not to infect me and mine.” 

Dabney, whose brother is a doctor at Cedar City Hospital, said he is alarmed at what he saw at the Target in St. George this week. 

“We went into Target looking for one thing, and I personally counted on purpose 71 people who didn’t have masks, gloves nothing and I thought they were crazy,” Dabney said. “I appreciate people need to get back to work, but your need for a job is not worth it if you’re on your deathbed.”

Local and state officials have both said they are trying to find a balance between public health needs and the economic needs of businesses and residents. 

Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Illustration of virus by Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, St. George News

Whatever the color of alert, a joint legislature-executive state committee recommended Thursday that as far as high-risk individuals, the alert should continue to be red. 

The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, created on April 17, recommended that high-risk populations continue to adhere to the recommendations in the high-risk red phase regardless of the actual color risk level in their area.

This is a change in the Utah Leads Together Plan, which called for high-risk groups to be permitted to be in groups of 20 or less if an area went yellow.

“Data now suggests most people will recover, and that the greatest danger of grave illness lies mainly with the elderly and those with underlying health conditions,” said Sen. Dan Hemmert, R, who co-chairs the committee with Burton. 

The move reflects a recent shift in state policy to adhere less to a “close everything and stay home” directive and more of a plan to target just hot spots and those at high risk of dying from the virus that has killed 76,368 people nationwide in three months – more than the average of 65,000 killed per year by influenza according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. 

Utah has been one of the lowest death rates among the states, with 61 Utahns dying of COVID-19-related disease. All three of the deaths in Southern Utah have either been a person with an underlying medical condition or over the age of 60. 

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 8, 2020)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 138 (6 new), with 90 recoveries (0 new).

  • Washington County: 103 (5 new, 3 confirmed that were unspecified May 7)
  • Iron County: 29 (1 new) 
  • Garfield County: 3
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 3

  • Washington County: 2 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 3

Tested: 7,376 (0 new tests)

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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