UPDATED: Students, staff at schools will no longer be quarantined after winter break if exposed to COVID-19

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday morning that after K-12 students return from winter break, students and staff at schools will no longer be subject to quarantine if they have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19 as long as both parties were masked.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walks through the rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing July 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

The government made the announcement during the recording of the monthly PBS Utah Governor’s Monthly News Conference program – Herbert’s last such program as the state’s chief executive.

The governor cited state data that he said shows 1% of students and staff exposed to someone with COVID-19 contracted the virus themselves.

“We have found that the risk of those in close contact is minimal,” Herbert said. “This will be less disruption in the classroom and less disruption for parents.”

It is unclear as of the morning program if the no-quarantine policy will be strictly for exposure that occurs at schools.

Herbert acknowledged there might be some who disagree with the decision.

“I know some won’t feel that way, but a majority of administrators and staff will welcome this.”

The governor also cited teachers and staff at K-12 schools being next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine after the frontline medical workers who are receiving it now. Herbert said he expects the vaccine to be available to all teachers by mid-January.

Students at Diamond Valley Elementary space themselves out before school, Diamond Valley, Utah, Aug. 13, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Annette Graf, St. George News

While Southern Utah has been dealing with a surge of new infections, hospitalizations and deaths since mid-October from the virus, the Washington County and Iron County school districts have comparatively not seen a high percentage of new infections. While there are nearly 5,000 active cases of COVID-19 currently in Southern Utah, the Washington County School District said as of last weekend there were 110 active cases among students and staff.

The Utah Department of Health credits a strict enforcement of a mask mandate in schools that was in place more than a month before Herbert issued a statewide mask mandate.

On Thursday, the governor expressed regret that he didn’t follow the schools’ example sooner.

“I wish I had the statewide mask mandate earlier,” Herbert said. “I regret those who made it a political issue. That’s been disappointing to me.”

First vaccines provided at Dixie Regional 

On Wednesday afternoon, Dixie Regional Medical Center physical therapist Gail Rieffer became the first person in Southern Utah to receive a non-trial dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, as she grinned and beared getting the shot inside the temporary BLU-MED tent in the rear of the main medical campus.

Photo from a video showing physical therapist Gail Rieffer becoming the first person in Southern Utah to receive a non-trial dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. At Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on Dec. 16, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare|

She won’t be the last.

Over the next two weeks, medical staff — from doctors, to nurses, to janitorial staff — that have direct contact with COVID-19 patients will receive the vaccine, though the hospital is giving the option to refuse the vaccine.

By mid-January, local teachers will also have a vaccine available to them — also on a voluntary basis. The vaccine supplies will be shipped locally to Dixie Regional Medical Center.

However, Dunn said the state department of health has been surveying people during contract tracing and the state’s questionnaire to get a COVID-19 test as to whether they would be willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Dunn said 70% of respondents said they would.

“We’re at a really good starting point to achieve herd immunity,” Dunn said.

According to the Utah Department of Health, there are now 407 people in Utah inoculated against COVID-19. By Thursday night, Intermountain Healthcare said more than 1,800 of the staff in its hospitals had been vaccinated.

The vaccine can cause up to 48 hours of side effects that include fever, chills and headaches. It has also caused an additional reaction in three individuals among the thousands who have taken the vaccine thus far worldwide with severe allergies that required an additional epinephrine injection.

The timetable as of Dec. 17, 2020 for release of the COVID-19 vaccine locally according to the Utah Department of Health. | Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The current vaccine is the one by Pfizer approved last Friday by the Federal Drug Administration. But the supply looks to be boosted by the FDA approval of a second vaccine, by Maderna, this weekend. Along with being more effective than the Pfizer vaccine in trials, the Maderna vaccine will also be easier to manufacture and can be stored in a normal refrigerator, rather than requiring the minus 70-degree temperatures of the Pfizer vaccine.

At this point, May to June is the point in the state’s vaccine timeline when all of the general public would have the vaccine available to them after first responders and high-risk groups. However, Dunn said the projections of vaccine supply is changing daily and it’s very possible that timeline could be moved as early as March when anyone in Southern Utah could get the vaccine.

“If we get a lot more vaccine, that will speed up the timeline to when we can get it to the general public,” Dunn said.

Deadliest days

Utah marked its deadliest day of the pandemic on Thursday, with 30 additional deaths statewide from COVID-19.

A listing of the deadliest days in U.S. and Utah history, including days caused by COVID-19 deaths, as of Dec. 17, 2020. Also, a comparison to daily deaths from other diseases. | Background photos by Pixabay; Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The toll was not as great proportionally in Southern Utah, where there were two reported COVID-19 deaths Thursday. But the 23 deaths of the last six days is among the highest death counts of the pandemic locally.

Dunn said Utah is still dealing with the end result of the large surge in new infections in October and November that became record hospitalizations and, now, record deaths. She said the steadily falling rate of new infections is a sign that the next cycle may not be as bad as far as hospitalizations and death toll.

“These (current deaths) are directly connected to the surge in November and we can anticipate better days ahead as new cases are reduced,” Dunn said.

However, in Southern Utah at least, the last two days have seen signs that a week of lower new case counts is going back up again. The 280 new infections Thursday and 283 Wednesday were the 10th- and seventh-highest days in the pandemic for the five-county area.

The last two days have not only been among the deadliest in Utah and the U.S. for the pandemic, but also in the overall history of both the state and the nation.

Thursday was the eighth-deadliest day in Utah history, while Wednesday was the third-deadliest day in American history — surpassed only by the Civil War Battle of Antietam and the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. In just the last week, the 9/11 terrorist attacks have gone from the fifth-deadliest day in American history to the ninth.

COVID-19 has now become the deadliest disease on a daily basis according to CDC statistics both in Utah and the nation, surpassing heart disease.

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.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

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

Positive COVID-19 tests: 16,254 (222.9 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Dec. 14)

  • Washington County: 12,684 (162.5 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 2,737 (45.9 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 297 (6.3 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 268 (1.6 per day, steady)
  • Beaver County: 268 (6.6 per day, rising)

New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):

  • St. George: 110 (rising)
  • Washington City: 24 (rising)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 49 (rising)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 21 (rising)
  • Cedar City: 43 (falling)

Deaths: 123 (2.2 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 99 (4 new since last report: Hospitalized female 65-84, hospitalized female 65-84, hospitalized male 25-44, hospitalized male over 85)
  • Iron County: 14 (2 new: Male 45-64 at home, hospitalized male 65-84)
  • Garfield County: 7 
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2

Hospitalized: 36 (falling)

Active cases: 5,719 (rising)

Current Utah seven-day average: 2,570 (steady)

Number of vaccinated in Utah: 407 

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

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