The COVID-19 pandemic in Southern Utah: A look back at 2020

Some of the first caregivers to receive the COVID-19 vaccination in Southern Utah show off their band-aids at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, Dec. 16, 2020. The vaccine delivery is the capstone to a year rife with anxiety over a disease that affected Southern Utahns and global citizens alike. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

FEATURE — It’s not a stretch to say that 2020 will be remembered for store shelves empty of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, working and going to school at home, wearing a mask and being against wearing a mask. Not to mention long swabs being stuck up the nostril, social distancing and – saddest of all – only being able to say goodbye to a loved one by video chat.

Social distancing floor sign in St. George Regional Airport on June 22, 2020. | File photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

2020 will forever be remembered as the year Southern Utah was not immune to a pandemic that reached every continent around the globe.

At the end of what was unanimously felt to be one of the longest years in memory, the circumstances of 2020 won’t soon be forgotten.

Below is a time capsule of the COVID-19 pandemic, from its beginning to now, as seen on the pages of St. George News.

January 26: The first time COVID-19 or the coronavirus is mentioned in St. George News is a story about the first cases of a new virus taking place in the nearby states of Arizona and California.

In this Jan. 24, 2020, file photo, heavy equipment works at a construction site for a field hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei Province. | Photo by Chinatopix via Associated Press, St. George News

The virus can cause fever, coughing, wheezing and pneumonia. It is a member of the coronavirus family that’s a close cousin to the deadly SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past.

Dozens of people have died from the virus in China, which has issued massive travel bans in hard-hit sections of that country to try to stem spread of the virus. The U.S. consulate in Wuhan announced that it would evacuate its personnel and some private citizens aboard a charter flight.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 0
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 0
Number of cases in U.S.: 5
Number of deaths in U.S.: 0

February 15: Jerri Jorgensen becomes the first resident of Southern Utah to be infected with the coronavirus, though she was infected aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess during a cruise through Asia.

She would be kept in a quarantined room in a Yokohama, Japan, for another 14 days before being cleared of the virus and returning home to St. George on March 2, the same day the Centers for Disease Control reported the first death in the United States from the new virus.

Her husband Mark Jorgensen was also infected on the ship, though his diagnosis came while being kept in quarantine at a California airbase. Mark was then transported to the Emergency Preparedness Unit of Intermountain Medical Center in Murray to become the first person to be treated for the virus within the state.

Both of the Jorgensens never developed symptoms other than a fever for Jerri when she was first diagnosed.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 0
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 0
Number of cases in U.S.: 15
Number of deaths in U.S.: 0

March 12: The pandemic became real to most Utahns when the Utah Jazz were unable to take to the court after Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with COVID-19 and the NBA season was suspended, Gov. Gary Herbert takes what he said were proactive measures to “get ahead of the virus” that at that point had infected five in the state, though none of those measures are mandatory.

Basketball fans react after it is announced that an NBA basketball game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City has been postponed, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 | Associated Press photo by Kyle Phillips, St. George News

Herbert said gatherings of 100 people or more in the state were recommended to be avoided, and those aged 60 and over were recommended to avoid any gatherings of more than 20 people.

During a press conference, Herbert echoed what most public officials are saying in regard to social interaction restrictions: They are in place to get ahead of the spread of the virus in a state that has yet to see a case.

We are hoping for the best, preparing for the worst. I’ve not come to these decisions lightly. This is seeing what has happened in the last week with science. We’re trying to be proactive to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 0
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 0
Number of cases in U.S.: 1,645
Number of deaths in U.S.: 41

March 21: The Southwest Utah Public Health Department confirmed the first case of a person being diagnosed in Southern Utah with a positive test of the COVID-19 coronavirus. As would be the case for all of those diagnosed with the virus, only their county of residence – Washington County – was disclosed. 

Southwest Utah Public Health Department spokesperson David Heaton said efforts throughout the state, and specifically Southern Utah, to socially isolate and avoid groups of 10 or more have played a role from seeing a large, exponential burst of cases. But Heaton added that the first positive case from a test made specifically in Southern Utah shows the efforts need to continue.

We certainly expect to see more cases diagnosed positive in our area based on the activity but we hope by people following the public health order we can reduce those. We’re certainly not out of the woods.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 1
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 0
Number of cases in U.S.: 23,649
Number of deaths in U.S.: 302

March 27: The Southwest Utah Public Health Department has reported the first death of a Southern Utah resident related to COVID-19: An Iron County woman, an older adult under the age of 60, died while receiving treatment in a Salt Lake City-area hospital.

The day also saw another first: the first Southern Utah resident to have been declared free of the virus after being infected.

Undated photo illustration. | Photo by
Soner Cdem/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Later in the day, Gov. Gary Herbert issued recommendations for all Utahns to stay home for two weeks as well as recommend restaurants limit themselves to delivery and takeout.

The “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive falls short of a mandatory, statewide shelter-in-place order like that which has been enacted in places like California and New York, but Herbert said the message of the directive is that at this point, everyone in Utah should stay home unless they have essential needs to leave it.

All individuals should stay home as much as possible. We should be looking at what we can do to stay home, rather than being out. This is something we expect all Utahns to do. It will only work if we all do this. All of us are in this together.

The governor would later make the restaurant recommendation an order and, on April 17, extend the recommendations to stay home while adding a red-orange-green color system to indicate the risk level, with the entire state starting in the red.

Also on March 27, the United States passed China for the most number of cases in the world, a spot the U.S. has occupied since.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 10
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 1
Number of cases in U.S.: 101,242
Number of deaths in U.S.: 1,500

April 16: In the first sign of local criticism of COVID-19 prevention efforts, over 200 people gathered outside the Washington County Administrative Building in St. George to protest coronavirus prompted restrictions set up throughout the state they claim are impeding their constitutionally-protected rights and doing more harm than good.

At the “Walk for Freedom” in St. George protesting coronavirus-caused closures and restrictions protesters claim are impeding constitutionally-protected freedoms, St. George, Utah, April 15, 2020 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

There were individuals among the crowd that wore masks and practiced social distancing by remaining 6 feet apart, while others clustered in small groups and stood right next to each other.

Organizer Larry Meyers said protest attendees were encouraged to observe the state directive against standing too close to others and not being in gatherings of over 10 people. When asked about some clusters of people not observing those directives, Meyers said, “The thing is, you can’t control freedom.”

Also on April 16, the death toll from COVID-19 in the U.S. moved past Italy for the highest in the world. No country has surpassed it since.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 63
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 1
Number of cases in U.S.: 604,070
Number of deaths in U.S.: 31,002

April 30: Wearing an orange tie to mark the occasion, Gov. Gary Herbert signed an official order for Utah to end the red risk level for the virus and move to orange, effectively ending the stay home recommendations and allowing restaurants to allow inside dining again and for gyms to reopen. 

People gather to witness the “Utah Strong Flyover” performed by Hill Air Force Base, as seen from St. George, Utah, April 30, 2020 | File photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

While he maintains optimism that a majority of Utahns will continue social distancing and taking precautions, Herbert cautioned that it is not time for a return to normal. And as easily as the state moves to a lower risk level, a substantial increase in cases and other signs people have become careless with social distancing could erase that progress and put the state right back on a red alert footing. 

A day later, seemingly coming out of the stay home recommendations slumber, hundreds gathered under Dixie Rock along Red Hills Parkway and other areas of St. George to see an Air Force flyover designed as a salute to health care workers in the state.

At the same time, the U.S. passed the million mark for the number of those that had been infected by the virus.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 98
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 2
Number of cases in U.S.: 1,003,974
Number of deaths in U.S.: 52,428

May 20: The first surge of the pandemic arrived in Southern Utah – especially for Washington County where cases went up 50% in a week. However, a spokesperson for the health agency that oversees Southern Utah said at the time there was no cause for alarm.

Cars line up for the Intermountain Medical drive-thru coronavirus testing site at 376 E. 500 South in St. George, Utah, on May 11, 2020. | File photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said the increase in cases is not as important an indicator of where the fight is against the virus. He added there is no reason for anyone to be panicked over the increasing number of those with the virus in the area.  

“We’re not any more alarmed or concerned than we have been. There have been no nursing home outbreaks and we have not been able to identify any clusters,” Heaton said. “We’re concerned about any case we have, but the hospital curve is more important for us. Most cases here don’t involve hospitalization. It’s a reflection of the robust testing efforts.”

The surge came a week after Gov. Gary Herbert opened up more of the state by moving much of it to the yellow risk level. That followed two failed attempts by Southern Utah leaders to have the risk level lowered in the area.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 260
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 4
Number of cases in U.S.: 1,477,459
Number of deaths in U.S.: 89,271

May 30: In a showing of support for local health care workers and to help supply them with needed personal protection equipment, more than 300,000 masks have been created and delivered by local volunteers.

Boxes of homemade masks dropped off at the 400 East Campus of Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, May 30, 2020 | File photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

One person in a red pickup drove up to 400 East Saturday morning and out came one white kitchen bag full of masks. Then another, and another. There were about 2,400 mask in all made by that one household. 

And that wasn’t the only vehicle where multiple bags of masks were unloaded. It wasn’t long before a volunteer yelled out to “smush the masks” to make room in the boxes, as the boxes at the site were quickly filling up.

The masks arrived on a day Southern Utah saw what was at the time its highest number of infections in one day – 37.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 423
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 4
Number of cases in U.S.: 1,745,606
Number of deaths in U.S.: 102,798

June 20: As recorded cases of COVID-19 in Southern Utah crossed the 1,000 mark, some Washington County officials began a push to have state’s color-coded coronavirus restrictions changed or lifted so life can begin to “get back to normal.”

“I think its time to get back to normal,” Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson said Saturday. “Our citizens want to be free. And we’re done. We’re just done with whatever color they want to put up. We want to go back to red, white and blue. Let us worry about our health.”

Iverson added he “will never wear a mask” and reiterated previous calls for the state government to leave COVID-19 related decision making and policy in the hands of local health departments rather than “an un-elected bureaucrat” in Salt Lake City.

Iverson’s comments drew criticism from Gov. Gary Herbert, who ended up enacting the state’s first mask mandate four days later, requiring them to be worn in all state buildings.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 1,031
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 9
Number of cases in U.S.: 2,172,212
Number of deaths in U.S.: 118,205

July 9: Gov. Gary Herbert announced that masks will be mandated for all students, faculty, staff and visitors to K-12 schools in the state as a requirement for returning to in-person instruction.

He stopped short of mandating masks for the public at large or moving the coronavirus risk level back to orange, challenging Utahns to wear masks and practice social distancing on their own by the beginning of August or face further action that could include a mask mandate and a closing down of some businesses.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 1,881
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 15
Number of cases in U.S.: 2,973,695
Number of deaths in U.S.: 133,195

August 21: Hundreds of Southern Utah residents attended a rally in front of the Washington County School District offices to protest Gov. Gary Herbert’s mandatory mask mandate for schools.

Some in attendance started shouting and a few became aggressive, demanding entrance to the school district offices saying it was “their building” and that the rally was now going to be held inside.

Attendees at the “End the Mask Mandate Rally” hold up signs in front of the Washington County School District offices, St. George, Utah, Aug. 21, 2020 | File photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

Organizers and attendees, along with St. George Police Department personnel in attendance, quickly diffused the situation and the rally continued without further incident.

Rally attendee Dustin Cox, who spoke over the megaphone, encouraged district students in attendance to not wear a mask when they return to school, even if it means getting expelled.

“I was encouraging all of the students to not wear masks at all and encouraging them to meet with their principals if that’s what it takes, and to get expelled from school,” Cox said about his speech at the rally.

The protest gained national attention a month later when footage circulated on social media of one protester, who compared having to wear a mask to alleged murder victim George Floyd being heard saying “I can’t breathe.” The video ended up trending on Twitter and was also the subject of jokes on late night talk shows like Jimmy Kimmel.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 3,504
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 27
Number of cases in U.S.: 5,477,305
Number of deaths in U.S.:167,338

September 10: Gov. Gary Herbert denied a request from local leaders and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department to move Washington and Iron counties into the green recommended restrictions level for the coronavirus.

Herbert said the request was denied because he said the rate of infections in Washington and Iron counties has still not stabilized for a long period of time.

Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist, who authored the letter asking for the green status, expressed his disappointment with the decision to St. George News and said the state is basing its decisions on numbers that “aren’t accurate.” 

“The reality here is their numbers are not based on the reality of what’s happening down here. My disappointment is the focus is on cases. Not on hospitalizations and deaths,” Almquist said. “We have been asked to flatten the curve and for 175 days we have done that. It is time to let our people go.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 3,774
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 29
Number of cases in U.S.: 6,272,193
Number of deaths in U.S.: 184,075

October 13: October saw a second, much larger surge start in Southern Utah that continued, to some extent, for the rest of the year.

The videoboard at Greater Zion Stadium in St. George, Utah, asks fans to wear a mask at the 2A state championship football game between Beaver and Duchesne, Nov. 14, 2020 | File photo by Rich Allen, St. George News

Gov. Gary Herbert issued an emergency declaration making the wearing of face coverings mandatory and restricting indoor social gatherings to 10 or less in Washington, Iron and Garfield counties.

The color-coded risk system was also abandoned in favor of a more data-driven COVID-19 Transmission Index that determines if a county has more restrictions like mask mandates based on how high the virus transmission level was there.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Southern Utah is averaging at least one death per day, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. 

Earlier in the month, the virus reached the highest office in the land, as President Donald Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 4,682
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 45
Number of cases in U.S.: 7,682,128
Number of deaths in U.S.: 207,838

October 18: Dixie Regional Medical Center activated its contingency surge intensive care unit after it went over the 32-bed capacity of its ICU. The move came as Southern Utah deals with the continued rise in coronavirus hospitalizations and new infections in the area.

The surge ICU plan converts additional rooms into negative pressure ICU rooms that makes additional ICU beds available.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 5,504
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 47
Number of cases in U.S.: 7,966,729
Number of deaths in U.S.: 211,637

November 8: Utah Gov. Gary Herbert ordered a statewide mask mandate and also ordered that households may not participate in or host social gatherings other than with people in their immediate households for the next two weeks. These moves are in response to an ongoing surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert seen in an address to all Utahns Sunday evening where he ordered a statewide mask mandate and prohibited social gatherings in households for the next two weeks, Nov. 8, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Utah Governor’s Office, St. George News

Herbert issued the state of emergency order through an emergency alert sent to mobile phones throughout the state at 9 p.m. and an address to the state 30 minutes later.

Our hospitals are full. This threatens patients who rely on hospital care from everything from COVID-19 to emergencies like heart attacks, strokes, surgeries and trauma,” Herbert said in the address. “(This) is not a shutdown of our society or our economy. We’re not closing any businesses … but the wearing of masks and exercising every precaution when it comes to gathering with others including social distancing is crucial.”

Later in the month, on Nov. 12, Southern Utah broke more than 300 new infections in a day for the first time.

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 7,219

Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 61
Number of cases in U.S.: 9,636,579
Number of deaths in U.S.: 230,136

A nurse in COVID-19 protective gear enters one of the rooms in the intensive care unit inside Dixie Regional Medical Center, St. George, Utah, December 2020 | Photo courtesy off Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

December 8: Dixie Regional Medical Center reached full capacity, according to the hospital’s medical director. 

The news came as Southern Utah reached 100 people who have died of the coronavirus.

Cedar City set a new one-day high for new infections and is now nearing the same number of new infections per day as St. George, despite having less than half the population.

Hospital medical director Dr. Patrick Carroll said the ICU has been regularly running around 150% capacity in the last few days. He added if the ICU goes above 200% capacity, the hospital will switch to crisis mode. 

Carroll said the ICU actually went down in population on Tuesday, but it wasn’t because of people being discharged.

“The census decreased because we had additional deaths,” Carroll said.

Meanwhile, nurses like ICU nurse Avery Broadbent will continue working extra 10-hour shifts, where she says she’s seeing patients die every day.

“We’ve had several couples come into the hospital and most of the time, only one comes out,” Broadbent said. “It’s awful because people have the power to prevent all of that. It’s all preventable. All of it.”

Number of cases in Southern Utah: 14,138
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 100
Number of cases in U.S.: 14,570,523
Number of deaths in U.S.: 278,030

December 14: The first approved vaccines for COVID-19 arrive in Utah.

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, Dec. 16, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

The first two shipments of two boxes each were unloaded at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo and LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City. Eventually, the first boxes arrived at Dixie Regional Medical Center and at other Southern Utah hospitals a week later.

By the start of the new year, all medical personnel at each of Southern Utah’s hospitals that wanted to have the first injection of the COVID-19 vaccine are expected to have had it.

As 2021 begins, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department is now starting vaccination clinics, starting with non-hospital medical workers locally and soon expanding to K-12 school teachers and staff, as well as first responders.

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain, said Monday was a pivotal day in the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 117 people and infected nine of every 100 people in Southern Utah since March.

“Today signals the beginning of the end of this pandemic in Utah,” Stenehjem said. “We’ve looked under the hood … the data submitted to the FDA, and we feel this vaccine is safe and effective. I have no hesitation to personally being vaccinated.”

Number of cases in Southern Utah (as of Dec. 31): 19,024
Number of deaths in Southern Utah: 137
Number of cases in U.S.: 19,923,169
Number of deaths in U.S.: 345,015
Number of vaccine doses in Southern Utah: 909
Number of vaccine doses in U.S.: 3,169,818

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

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