‘Canary in a coal mine’: Governor warns Southern Utah as state sets one-day high for COVID-19 infections

ST. GEORGE — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has initiated a set of emergency meetings at the State Capitol Thursday after the state saw its highest one-day total for new infections since the pandemic began.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sept. 17, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

And while the large spike in cases isn’t yet being reflected in Southern Utah, the governor said people south of Lehi should consider what’s happening up north as a warning.

“We don’t want to have people that are doing the right thing in the right way having good success to, in fact, be punished because of other areas. We understand that concern. Washington County, though, had about a 35% increase in infections this last week, which causes a little bit of pause. They’re still in a good place, but we need to analyze,” Herbert said in response to a question by St. George News during a press conference Thursday at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City. 

The governor also nixed any possibility of Washington and Iron counties moving to the green coronavirus alert level, putting a one-week moratorium on granting any dial-down requests. 

“It is the canary in a coal mine. We’re saying, ‘Wait a minute. Be careful, be aware.’ There may be something happening, so if we have to wait a week to make some decisions on Southern Utah to go to green, if that’s in fact what the data shows, that’s probably well worth the wait.” 

It may have not been lost on the governor that the number of new cases statewide, according to the Utah Department of Health – 911 – also equaled the digits of the phone number to call for an emergency. The governor took what he said were emergency measures Thursday toward the pandemic and said everything, including a statewide mask mandate, is on the table and will be discussed in the next few days.

The most significant measure is the Utah Department of Health is ending any restriction on getting tested for COVID-19 in the state. In the coming days, people will be able to be tested for the virus regardless of whether they are experiencing a symptom or not. Up until now, testing sites – including the Intermountain Healthcare drive-up testing sites at the 400 East Dixie Regional Medical Center campus in St. George and the Instacare in Cedar City – would only test those who had at least one symptom.

Officials with Intermountain Healthcare are still determining when the wider testing protocol will take effect locally. There is also no indication when TestUtah, which also operates a local drive-through testing center behind the Red Cliffs Mall in St. George, will be allowing anyone to take a COVID-19 test. 

Gil Almquist speaks during luncheon debate hosted by Washington County Republican Women, St. George, Utah, May 3, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

The other significant measure is the governor has put on hold for at least a week granting any requests to reduce the color risk level in any locality in the state, squashing any effort for Southern Utah to move from the current yellow risk level to green. 

Last week, the governor rejected a request led by Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist to have Washington and Iron counties move to green. 

Almquist told St. George News he sent a new request to move green to the governor’s office Thursday, even though the governor said he would not consider it for at least a week. 

“We’ve done a lot down here in Southern Utah to fight off the spread of COVID and our numbers reflect that,” Almquist said, saying the new request puts an emphasis on hospitalizations as being a key indicator, as opposed to any rise in cases. “Hospitalizations are a better indicator of what the original goal was – to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed.” 

According to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, hospitalization of local residents with coronavirus went up 29% – from five to seven – on Thursday. However, except for a one-day period on Sept. 1, local resident coronavirus hospitalizations have remained under the double-digits since Aug. 9 after Dixie Regional Medical Center nearly reached capacity in mid-July. 

Chart shows deaths and hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus since May 1 as of Sept. 17, 2020, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

New infections in Southern Utah totaled 23 Thursday, equaling Wednesday’s number. The seven-day daily average in new cases has gone up 38% in the last week (from 15.7 to 21.7 new infections per day). However, almost all of that increase has come from Washington County, as Iron County hasn’t seen a significant increase in cases for nearly two weeks. 

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain Healthcare, acknowledged hospitalizations are, at the very least, stable in its hospitals at the moment, though cautioned that hospitalizations are a lagging indicator that come after cases build up. 

“From a hospitalization perspective, we’ve been relatively stable. We had been declining but we’re flat now. The 15-24-year-old population doesn’t get hospitalized though some do get sick,” Stenehjem said in a session Thursday with reporters. “What we’re really worried about is what does that transmission look like from that 15-24-year-old to their parents and grandparents here. … And we’re starting to get some sense that is already happening.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn with the Utah Department of Health said Thursday that the previous large spike in infections in July started with younger individuals and spread to older, more vulnerable residents that are more likely to be hospitalized and, in some cases, die. 

Chart shows cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to Sept. 17, 2020, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

A big difference from the July spike is that while that surge was statewide, this surge has been regional with more than 40% of new infections coming from Utah County and most of those being centered around the campus of Brigham Young University and the off-campus social activities of some students, according to the Utah Department of Health.   

Almquist called the off-campus actions of a few BYU students “arrogance,” but the Washington County Commissioner has also been outspoken about the government putting limits on the actions of residents and has said he prefers people – young and old – to self-govern. He said he has seen better behavior from local students at Dixie State University and Southern Utah University.   

“There is no room for arrogance. Would I be in favor of massive parties and recklessness that has appeared up north down here? The closest thing I would come to is a strong discouragement,” Almquist said. “The reality is that enough people are wary about their condition now so they’re being more careful. Sick young adults are not visiting grandma like they may have been doing in March.”

Dunn noted that a young person is less likely to show signs of being sick compared to older individuals and more likely to be asymptomatic – spreading the virus to others without being aware they have it. 

Photo illustration. | Photo by
Ahmed Zaggoudi, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

“What we learned like the summer peak when it started with the young and the healthy, it moved to the more vulnerable individuals,” said Dunn, who added she is concerned the pace of the current spike may be faster than the one in July. “What makes this so alarming is we’ve gotten to this peak in one week. This summer, it took six weeks. We need to take immediate actions.”

Another “canary in a coal mine” locally may be the sudden increase in coronavirus cases in two local long-term care facilities: Autumn Park Assisted Living in Washington City and The Haven at Sky Mountain in Hurricane, though David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, told St. George News those are the only large outbreaks being detected locally at this point.

Governor expresses concerns about local health departments

During his press conference, Herbert said that in addition to the infection spike, he was alarmed by two things: Local governments in the state stifling their local health departments and what he said were some individuals and leaders spreading what he said was false information that is not collaborated by health experts or science.

Without citing specific incidents, the governor said some local leaders in the state have gone against data and the advice of health experts to push their own political agenda. 

Local health departments … should be leading out on this, not subjected to political pressure. They should give the best recommendation they can based on the best science. They should not bend to political pressure,” Herbert said.

In Washington County, local leaders have expressed opinions that are contrary to those made by health experts, including that masks should only be worn by sick individuals.

Almquist said county leaders are taking the advice of the Southwest Utah Health Department and its director, Dr. David Blodgett.

“If he came to us and said, ‘Hey, I know you guys want to go green, but we need to stay yellow,’ I would support Dr. Blodgett on that, but he would have a compelling reason to say that,” Almquist said. “The reasons coming out of Salt Lake are not compelling.”

Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department,  has previously criticized the governor’s office for not deferring enough to local health departments while also expressing the state does not want to “take ownership.” He also expressed disappointment when the government dropped a plan to recommend allowing students and staff at schools to still come to campus after they had been exposed to someone with the coronavirus. 

The local health director would not likely be one to mandate anything unless political leaders statewide did so,” Almquist said. “The reverse would be true. If we had a giant outbreak, I would not want the Salt Lake health director to tell us we need to go green.”

Undated photo of man sick in bed at undisclosed location | Photo by Paul Bradbury, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Herbert said he would prefer that local leaders make their own decisions, but cautioned that if the overall effort is not united in the science of the pandemic, it will take longer to stop it.

“We need to focus on this issue and unite our efforts to defeat it. If we are divisive, we’re going to have a harder time stopping this,” Herbert said. “The good book says the hand can’t say to the foot, ‘we don’t need you.’”

Herbert also took note of recent gatherings against face coverings including one last month in St. George that this week grew into nationwide notice on social media and late-night talk shows

“I’m alarmed by people who ignore health guidelines and those who have gatherings in defiance of what our health experts say,” Herbert said. “Just because you find it on YouTube or the internet doesn’t mean it’s correct. I rely on the experts.”

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Sept. 17, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 3,926 (21.7 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 3,065 (18.1 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 706 (3 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 74 (0.4 per day, steady)
  • Garfield County: 46 (0 per day, steady) 
  • Beaver County: 35 (0.3 per day, steady) 

Deaths: 29 (0 per day, steady)

  • Washington County: 24 
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 7 (rising)

Recovered: 3,542

Current Utah seven-day average: 661 (rising)

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

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