ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that most of the state will remain at the yellow risk level for coronavirus for the near future, citing the continuing increasing rates of COVID-19 infections in the state and in Southern Utah.
“These increasing cases give us pause. For the most part, we will pause and maintain yellow guidance for the state,” Herbert said at a press conference Thursday. “No one wants to return to normal quicker than me. We’ll do it as quick as data allows. We don’t want to do that and have to take a step back. What we don’t want to do is go to green and have to go back to yellow or orange.”
According to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, coronavirus cases in Southern Utah are up 99.4% (from 360 to 710) in the last two weeks. On Thursday, there were 38 new cases in the five-county area, including 33 in Washington County, setting a new single-day high.
The increasing cases are coming at the same time the number of those being tested is decreasing. As opposed to 3,004 new tests in a week at this point a week ago, there were 1,264 new tests in Southern Utah this week, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.
“Some parts of the state being hit harder than others,” Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said. “We’re seeing this increase from Logan to St. George.”
Herbert did announce one change Thursday, allowing for larger events to take place on a trial basis. While people are asked to maintain groups of 50 or less, the state is giving the go-ahead for cultural events to take place with a maximum capacity of 6,000 in outdoor venues and 3,000 in indoor venues. Social distancing and face coverings are still expected from attendees.
“We’re allowing these large gatherings to happen in a controlled way will help us understand how we can open the economy,” Dunn said.
The move now makes the free Utah Business Revival concert near Cedar City on Saturday an event that falls within state guidelines for crowds. The event was originally organized in northern Utah as a protest against state recommendations against large gatherings because of the virus.
If there is a silver lining to the increasing cases, it’s that while hospitalizations are still rising statewide, they have stabilized in Southern Utah – albeit after an exponential rise last week. Herbert said the state’s ICU capacity is now 15% full, while Dixie Regional Medical Center reported last week its ICU has been at around 75% capacity with room for expansion.
The state has also maintained one of the lowest death rates in the nation, and Southern Utah is no exemption as the number of dead has remained at four for the last two weeks.
“What has stayed the same is the fatality rate,” Herbert said. “We’ve got some good things going there.”
While a lot of people aren’t dying, people of all ages are experiencing weeks in bed with difficulty breathing and restless nights.
When asked whether the root cause of the increasing number of those infected with the virus was the state opening up the restriction recommendations, a lack of social distancing or larger gatherings like the protests seen throughout the state, Dunn replied “It’s all of the above.” Though she cautioned the Black Lives Matter protests like those in St. George and Cedar City have yet to be reflected because of the long gestation period of the virus.
“More people are gathering, and social distancing is not happening so we’re relying on people doing that,” Dunn said. “What I’m hearing from across the state is there is a lapsed attitude. The spread of COVID-19 is higher than it has been through this epidemic.”
‘Southern Utah is a concern for us’
The governor noted the rise in hospitalizations and infections in Southern Utah in the last four weeks, saying it will take Southern Utahns taking social distancing and face coverings seriously to give any opportunity for the area to go to a reduced green risk level.
“Washington County and Iron County are on our minds. The data is going to inform us,” Herbert said. “We aren’t going to be governed by fear or politics.”
When looking at individual cities, St. George is no longer alone as far as localities that are in the high rate of coronavirus infections over a 14-day cycle. It has now been joined by Cedar City, Washington City and the Santa Clara/Ivins City area.
“In the southwest, we’re still seeing increases in Washington County and St. George,” Dunn said. “This really enforces the message on social distancing and face covering. Southwest Utah is a concern for us right now.”
That doesn’t apply to all areas of Southern Utah. Garfield and Kane counties have had one case each in the last month. And then there’s Beaver County, which has still not had a single case throughout the pandemic. Dunn attributes that to the areas’ rural nature.
“Some areas have been spared. Social distancing is occurring naturally within these communities,” Dunn said.
Masks: An iron-clad defense
If there is still a social divide in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be seen on a trip to any supermarket among those who are wearing masks and face coverings and those who are not.
To Herbert, it’s not much different than those who decide to wear sunscreen and those who get burned.
“The difference is those who don’t wear masks don’t just endanger themselves but others,” Herbert said. We’re not trying to violate anyone’s civil rights. We’re just giving good counsel. Like if you go out in the sun, we advise to use sunscreen.”
That said, like he was reluctant to issue statewide orders when it came to staying at home, he said he’s reluctant to make masks mandatory.
“That’s hard to enforce and get people to comply with. We’ve made seat belt laws, but we’re still finding people dying in accidents because they weren’t wearing their seat belts,” Herbert said. “I like people to say it is in our best interests to do so.”
Masks are not necessarily meant to keep people from getting the virus from others as much as to prevent those with the virus from spreading it to others.
Dr. Samuel Brown, a critical care researcher at Intermountain Healthcare, has said he’s concerned that Utah may have to shut down again if people don’t practice mask-wearing and social distancing in the rush to get the economy jump-started.
“I understand why people are eager to be on the move again – I really do,” Brown said. “It’s also true that if we’re not really careful, people will die.”
There are several new studies showing that masks along with social distancing can drastically reduce the spread of the coronavirus and hasten a quicker return to something close to normal.
A Cambridge University study said routine face mask use by 50% or more of the population reduced COVID-19 spread to less than a 1 to 1 ratio. Reducing the ratio to less than 1 to 1 is the criteria Dunn has cited as key for Utah to go to green safely.
Another study, in the medical journal The Lancet, compiled data from hundreds of other studies and determined that if someone is near a person with the virus, they would have a 17% chance of acquiring the virus without a mask, a 3% chance with one on.
The same study also had evidence supporting social distancing, saying there is an 82% reduction in the chance of getting infected when people are three feet apart, a 91% reduction when they are 6 feet apart.
“It’s easy to become lackadaisical. We can’t go back to our old habits,” Herbert said. “What we’re saying to people is this is serious. It’s hard to change your habits but we’re asking you to.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story
COVID-19 information resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Intermountain Healthcare
- To Donate and Volunteer to Help
Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 11, 2020, one-week increase in parentheses)
Positive COVID-19 tests: 718 (194 new in one week)
- Washington County: 565 (155 new)
- Iron County: 145 (38 new)
- Garfield County: 4
- Kane County: 4 (1 new)
- Beaver County: 0
- Washington County: 3
- Iron County: 1
Hospitalized: 17 (no change)
Tested: 13,979 (1,264 new tests)
Recovered: 482 (162 new)
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