Officials warn in-home gatherings are likely driver of rise in COVID-19 cases as Thanksgiving nears

ST. GEORGE — For the second-straight day, Southern Utah hit a record 139 new coronavirus infections Thursday and hit its high in locals being hospitalized for the virus. Local health officials have traced a large part of the monthlong rise in the spread to gatherings of friends and families in homes without the use of preventative measures.

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

As families start to plan their traditional Thanksgiving gatherings over the next few weeks, medical experts are alarmed that the same kind of gathering of friends and family that take place at homes on “turkey day” is a prime driver behind the worst spread of the virus statewide since the pandemic began.

“A majority of cases have been with other contacts in gatherings of family and friends,” said David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.

Heaton said it would be false to say that tourists coming into the area from out of state or large outdoor gatherings are drivers behind what is being called a “surge.”

“I know people are concerned with people traveling in or large gatherings. We have just not seen big outbreaks related to those,” Heaton said. 

As the calendar has turned to November, families are making their plans for Nov. 26. The question is, whether during a pandemic, should people still be going over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.  

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, said that if there is a year to downscale those Thanksgiving plans, this is it. He advises keeping Thanksgiving dinners to those in a single household, rather than inviting friends and family who don’t live in the same house. 

There’s no reason to think we can’t get creative with Thanksgiving,” Carroll said.

That sentiment is echoed by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Heaton placed an emphasis on the older population who are at high risk. 

“We would say this has been an unusual year, and we encourage people to be creative and adaptable with the holidays,” Heaton said. “The main concern remains the older population. We need to carefully consider what we do.”

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

Officials at the state level are also saying it isn’t people going into stores or businesses spreading COVID-19, but people meeting with friends and outside family in their homes.

Even in areas with mask mandates like Washington County, health officials said from their contact tracing, people may be wearing their mask at school or when they go to the store, but are then gathering with people at home without social distancing or masks and interacting with visitors.

The Utah Department of Health reported a record 2,807 new infections statewide Thursday, shattering the previous single-day record. 

At this point, the rate of infection in Utah is nearing the rate Arizona saw in July that resulted in the state starting a statewide mask mandate and a brief lockdown of businesses.

Gov. Gary Herbert said he will be holding emergency meetings throughout the rest of the week with legislators and health officials to determine the next steps. He said during a press conference Thursday that many options are on the table including a larger statewide mask mandate and consideration of increasing off-campus, virtual sessions for schools. 

Gov. Gary Herbert listens as Gov.-elect Spencer Cox announces details related to their upcoming transition of leadership in the Gold Room at the Utah State Capitol on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by.Steve Griffin/Deseret News via Associated Press, St. George News

At the same time, he all but ruled out another recommended lockdown of businesses similar to the “stay safe, stay home” policy in March and April. The governor said the virus is not spreading as much in stores and schools as it is at home.  

“The spread is happening in our homes, and it’s killing people. The business community has been doing a good job. We don’t see a lot of the spread through the business community. What we’re not doing a good job with is our structured gatherings,” Herbert said. “It’s not happening at schools where they have been very good about wearing masks, then they come home and it’s spread there.”

Hospitalizations also hit a single-day high statewide on Thursday, including in Southern Utah where the Southwest Utah Public Health Department counted 35 local residents hospitalized. 

No changes in alert levels for counties

There were no changes in the COVID-19 Transmission Index for local counties Thursday. 

Map shows the current level of each county in Utah according to the COVID-19 Transmission Index provided by the Utah Department of Health as of Nov. 5, 2020. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Washington, Beaver and Garfield counties remained at the high level and will retain a mandatory mask order.

Iron County remained at the moderate level and Kane County at the low level, making masks not required in either county. 

Washington County remained the epicenter of the surge in Southern Utah, accounting for 117 of the 139 new cases in the five-county area Thursday. The percentage of COVID-19 tests that came back positive, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say should be at 5%, jumped from 19.7% to 22.4% in Washington County over the last week.

While remaining at the moderate level, Iron County also saw test positivity rise this week from 9.7% to 12.9%.

A week ago, Beaver County’s numbers had been declining enough that state health officials said another good week would make it move from the high to moderate level. However, in one week Beaver County’s positivity rate went from 8.5% to 22.2%.

The one Southern Utah county that saw a reduction in positive tests was Garfield County, which went from 18.7% to 11.4%.

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 Nov. 5, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 6,880 (106.6 new infections per day in seven days, rising since Nov. 4)

  • Washington County: 5,555 (92.7 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 1013 (9 per day, dropping)
  • Kane County: 105 (0.4 per day, dropping)
  • Garfield County: 112 (1.4 per day, rising) 
  • Beaver County: 95 (2.9 per day, steady) 

Deaths: 58 (0.3 per day, dropping)

  • Washington County: 47 
  • Iron County: 4 
  • Garfield County: 5
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 1 

Hospitalized: 35 (rising)

Recovered: 5,119 

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,943 (rising)

Southern Utah counties in high transmission level as of Nov. 5 (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less): Washington (22.4% positive tests, 689.0 per 100,000 case rate), Beaver (22.2% positive tests, 410.3 per 100,000 case rate), Garfield (11.3% positive tests, 393.7 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in moderate transmission level (masks required, gatherings to 10 or less until Oct. 29):  Iron (12.9% positive tests, 255.8 per 100,000 case rate)

Southern Utah counties in low transmission level (masks recommended, gatherings to 50 or less): , Kane (14.9% positive tests, 320.6 per 100,000 case rate)

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

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