With 26 new COVID-19 cases reported in Southern Utah, health department pinpoints lack of social distancing

Stock photo of nurse holding test tube with blood for 2019-nCoV analyzing | Photo by photoguns/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A day after the largest rise in cases involving the coronavirus, Southern Utah surpassed that number by one on Friday to set a new one-day high – 26 new cases – according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. With more people needing additional care for severe symptoms, there are now 17 local residents being hospitalized for COVID-19. 

While local health officials say they are still gathering data to specifically pinpoint the culprit for the increase in cases and hospitalizations, they indicated Friday that many of the cases have been traced to a lack of social distancing.

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said many of the cases have been traced by investigators to either informal social gatherings where people did not practice social distancing or use face coverings when that was not possible. If not social gatherings, cases have been traced to interactions between friends and coworkers where social distancing was not practiced. 

“While we don’t know for certain yet what has contributed to our recent rise in cases and hospitalizations, individual behavior will continue to make a difference in how COVID-19 spreads in our community,” Heaton said. “Social distancing and mask directives as detailed in the current phase-yellow guidelines will work best if more people choose to use them.”

On May 16, Gov. Gary Herbert reduced the statewide coronavirus risk level to yellow, recommending for all businesses and government offices to reopen while still practicing social distancing and face coverings when that is not possible. 

It’s the second part of that sentence – social distancing and wearing masks – that health officials say may have been forgotten by some.

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

“Low and moderate risk does not mean no risk,” Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said. “We all have a responsibility to be proactive and to do the things we know will help limit the spread of this virus: stay home if you’re sick, practice good hand hygiene, maintain social distancing, and when that’s not possible, wear a mask.”

Since Monday, the number of those hospitalized in Southern Utah has gone from five people to 17 – a 240% increase. 

Dr. Patrick Carroll, director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, said Thursday that the hospital has surpassed beyond the 58% occupied figure the state had said needs to be maintained to keep a local health system from being overwhelmed. However, Carroll added the hospital has been planning for months to deal with a surge in cases and is not putting those plans into action. 

While it’s not clear if all 17 local residents are being hospitalized at DRMC, Carroll said not every coronavirus patient is in an intensive care bed or on a ventilator. 

Mitch Cloward, administrator of Dixie Regional Medical Center, has previously said that the hospital has 24 intensive care unit beds, but the hospital has planned for the ability to staff 89 ICU beds and has 79 ventilators on hand. There are 332 total beds, with the ability to add 80-100 beds if necessary.

Data from the Utah Department of Health shows the to case rates in the last two weeks in individual cities in Southern Utah as of May 29, 2020. Arrows indicate whether a city has moved up a rate tier, gone down or stayed the same. | Infographic by Chris Reed, Photo illustration by Pixabay, St. George News

Caroll also indicated the COVID-19 patients in the hospital right now are not all senior citizens.

“The notion you’re protected if you’re not older than 65 … It’s not true,” Carroll said.

Of the 26 new cases Friday, 20 of them were in Washington County – which has had 324, or 84%, of the 385 total cases in Southern Utah. Digging down even further, the Utah Department of Health reports there have been 236 cases specifically in St. George, though Washington City has been seeing a steady rise in cases. 

While it pales compared to the case spike in Washington County, Iron County has seen a mini-surge of its own this week, going from 40-56 cases in the last week – a 40% increase.

Cedar City accounts for 45 of those 56 cases. However, there have been a few additional cases appearing in the New Harmony/Kanarraville area in the last 14 days. 

State sees it’s highest case total in one day

While the state as a whole has been spared the case surge that has happened in Southern Utah, that wasn’t the case on Friday as the state had its largest number of cases in one day – 343.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks at a March 12 COVID-19 coronavirus briefing at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo courtesy Utah Governor’s Office, St. George News

However, unlike Southern Utah, the state as a whole has seen a drop in hospitalizations in the last week and the case rate had been steady for the last two weeks up until Friday.

“While 343 new cases is the largest, single-day increase we have reported since the beginning of this outbreak, I would caution against jumping to conclusions on what this particular data point might mean,” Dunn said. “One day does not make a trend.” 

Dunn pointed to some hot spots in the state as a reason for the one-day increase. 

One in particular provides an example of how quickly the virus can spread.

According to Gary Harder, the Utah secretary of veterans affairs, one resident at the Christoffersen Veterans Home in Salt Lake City tested positive for the virus on May 18. Seven days later, 41 of the 71 residents in the facility were infected along with 17 members of the staff. 

Harder said the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins City remains virus-free. 

“Recovered” doesn’t mean virus-free

Among those who have been infected with the virus in Southern Utah,  237, or 62%, of those who have had the virus are considered recovered. 

Cars line up for the Intermountain Medical drive-thru coronavirus testing site at 376 E. 500 South in St. George, Utah, on May 11, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

However, recovered does not necessarily mean they are free of the virus or in perfect health. 

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department and the Utah Department of Health defines someone who has recovered as a “person who has gone three weeks since being infected with the virus and has not passed away.” 

Cedar City Hospital’s Dr. Jarid Gray, who spent two weeks helping coronavirus patients in the New York City area, said he often discharged patients who were just well enough to get out of the hospital to free up a bed but were not necessarily back on their feet. 

“Recovery denotes when we think the patient is no longer infectious to others,” Gray said, adding that recovered can also be defined as someone who has had three days without a fever and it has been 10 days from the onset of their symptoms. 

While those who are no longer infections are a cause for celebration, Dunn said it is important that people keep their eye on those who can still infect others. 

“What’s really important are the active cases,” Dunn said. “Each case gives us a chance to spread the virus.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 29, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 386 (26 new)

  • Washington County: 324 (20 new)
  • Iron County: 56 (6 new)
  • Garfield County: 3 
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 4 

  • Washington County: 3 
  • Iron County: 1

Currently hospitalized: 17 (13 new) 

Recovered: 237 (19 new).

Tested: 11,184 (0 new tests)

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

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