‘We’re effectively full’: Southern Utah breaks more than 300 new COVID-19 infections in one day

ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah continues to reach new levels in the spread of the coronavirus. Less than a week after the 200 mark for new infections in a day, the five-county area shattered the 300 barrier.

In this Nov. 10, 2020, file photo, Jon O’Brien sits at the Utah National Guard’s mobile testing site for COVID-19 in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick
Bowmer, Associated Press

There were 311 people who were newly diagnosed with the coronavirus in Southern Utah Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Health, breaking the previous high mark of 200 set on Nov. 6. That includes 156 new people with COVID-19 in St. George alone.

A new tool released by Georgia Tech utilizing statistics from John Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has determined the chance a person has to be around someone with COVID-19 in each county in the nation.

And at this point, a person in a room in Washington County with 10 other people has a 34% chance of being exposed to COVID-19. That is much larger than in some large cities in the country including Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York City.

On the state level, the 3,000-level was shattered and the 4,000-level was threatened with 3,919 new infections in the state. 

Chart shows the percentage chance of being exposed to COVID-19 in room with 10 people in certain cities according to the Georgia Tech biological sciences department. | Background photos by Chris Reed, St. George News, Pixabay; Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The continuing rise in infections – the worst since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March – comes just after Gov. Gary Herbert enacted a state of emergency in Utah Sunday that made masks mandatory, put restrictions on social gatherings and put a two-week moratorium on most after-school activities and sports. The new numbers had Herbert saying, “this is why we have a state of emergency,” during a press conference in Salt Lake City Thursday.

However, Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said by no means is the still-increasing spike a sign of the effectiveness of those measures. Health experts told St. George News that Thursday’s numbers are likely the impact of the Halloween holiday, with the up to 14-day gestation period of the virus. 

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through Nov. 12, 2020. | Background photo by by mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“We’re four days in. We need to give these measures time to reflect our case counts,” Dunn said. “Our only hope is if each of us is wearing a mask even more than we are doing now. Even if you think you’re wearing a mask enough, we need to wear it more.”

Even so, the new measures are finding resistance from some residents – including in Southern Utah where a couple dozen protesters gathered against mask mandates in St. George Town Square Wednesday and the Iron County Sheriff and two Iron County commissioners said they will not be enforcing the governor’s orders

Herbert specifically addressed comments by Iron County Sheriff Ken Carpenter Thursday that were also reported on social media and by television and print outlets througout the state, calling the comments “dissapointing” and “not helpful.”

“That doesn’t help. That’s not their prerogative. Law enforcement is there to enforce laws, not create laws,” Herbert said. 

In response, Carpenter told St. George News he would rather work with the governor than be an adversary. But he added the views of local leaders should be included. 

“We want to work with the governor to defeat this, but to do so we need to be included in the conversation, Carpenter said. “It would be beneficial if a representative from the Utah Sheriffs Association and the Utah Chiefs Association were included at the table to discuss how we can mitigate unintended consequences that are leading to unnecessary deaths in our jurisdictions.”

Ken Carpenter, candidate for Iron County Sheriff, speaks during debate at Cedar North Elementary School, Cedar City Utah, May 31, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Herbert asserted Thursday that constitutionally and under state law, he has the authority to make restrictive orders in regard to public health – orders he’s resisted making up until now.

According to the American Bar Association, the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 200 years of Supreme Court decisions have made state governments the primary authority to control the spread of dangerous diseases within their jurisdictions.

In Utah, according to Utah code, that authority falls to the state’s executive branch including the governor and the Utah Department of Health.

That said, Herbert also struck up a conciliatory tone Thursday.

“We shouldn’t be on opposite ends of the spectrum. We should want to protect people’s health, so I would hope we would find ways to come together rather than apart,” Herbert said. “I’m a big local control guy. I’ll leave it to the people of Iron County to determine what they want to do. We won’t run down and enforce this on behalf of Iron County. We hope they can be informed by the data.”

Before the state of emergency was declared, the state lifted a mask mandate in Iron County as a “reward” for keeping the rate of COVID-19 transmission at a moderate level. At the time, on Oct. 29, Iron County had been averaging 10.1 new infections per day over a seven-day period. Iron County is now averaging 18.9 new infections per day. 

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walks through the Capitol rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing Sept. 22, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

That still pales compared to the 126.3 infections per day in Washington County. However, in enacting the state of emergency on Sunday, Herbert cited the statewide capacity of hospitals being at its breaking point, which he said affects every county. 

Herbert pointed out Thursday that while Cedar City Hospital may not be seeing the same capacity issues as Dixie Regional Medical Center, all COVID-19 patients in Cedar City are still treated at the St. George hospital, which at this point is taking contingency measures to be able to serve all patients. 

“What we’re finding is in fact of the matter is people from Cedar City are being transferred to other hospitals and that’s going to come to a screeching halt as we don’t have the space. We need to listen to the experts,” Herbert said. 

Hospitals ‘fearful’ of where they will be

Those experts, at least on the hospital side, continued to make what they called a plea for help as the number of local residents who are COVID-19 patients at Dixie Regional Medical Center and other hospitals in the state continued to exponentially climb. 

A caregiver that handles COVID-19 patients suits up at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah. Undated photo. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Dr. Katie Thomas, associate medical director for Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah, said it is those with an aversion to taking preventative measures against the virus that are making their job harder.

“There’s a big chunk of the population that has done what they need, and I don’t know where we would be without them,” Thomas said. “If the population not masking and distancing doesn’t start beginning to do so, I’m fearful of where we will be.” 

While the number has been constantly changing, there have been between 38 and 41 local COVID-19 patients at Dixie Regional in the last two days, as well as a few more coronavirus patients from outside the area. 

Hospitals statewide are now at around 85% capacity, according to the Utah Department of Health, and intensive care unit space is basically nonexistent. 

“If you were denied an ICU bed would you still get care? Absolutely. But in our intensive care units, we’ve hit that line where we’re effectively full,” said Greg Bell, who heads the Utah Hospital Association that oversees all of the state’s hospitals.

But some help is on the way. 

Heather Anderson, a nurse in the intensive care unit of Dixie Regional Medical Center, dons her protective gear as she prepares to go in and take care of a COVID-19 patient. St. George, Utah. Oct. 29, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Intermountain Healthcare is adding 200 traveling nurses from out of state to its hospital, including 11 who should be in place at Dixie Regional Medical Center by next week. 

Hospitals are adding additional teams. They’re adding every possible team we can,” Bell said. 

That includes teams from New York City, as a kind of return payment from when Intermountain sent its own teams there in April, though at this point none of the New York nurses are coming to St. George. 

“In the last week, we’ve had to use part of the plan we hoped we never had to use,” Thomas said. “Beds don’t take care of patients, people do, and staffing has been a challenge.”

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. 12, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 8,185 (166.6 new infections per day in seven days, rising since Nov. 9)

  • Undetermined County: 100
  • Washington County: 6,558 (126.3 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 1,159 (18.9 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 111 (0.7 per day, rising)
  • Garfield County: 144 (4.2 per day, rising)
  • Beaver County: 113 (3.3 per day, rising)

Deaths: 63 (0.7 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 52  (2 new since last report: Hospitalized male 65-84, age/gender of second death undisclosed.)
  • Iron County: 4 
  • Garfield County: 5
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 1 

Hospitalized: 39 (rising)

Active cases: 2,465

Recovered: 5,712

Current Utah seven-day average: 2,738 (rising)

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

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