COVID-19 surge reinstates restrictions in Garfield County; ages 50 and over eligible for vaccine next week

Stock photo.| Photo by ThamKC/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants, events, bars and fitness gyms that had been rescinded in Garfield County three weeks ago have been reinstated after the largest surge in infections there since November. 

File photo of Panguitch, Utah, June 29, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Garfield and much of Southern Utah, which outside of Washington County has seen new infections get worse or plateau in the last two weeks, are an anomaly in the rest of the state, which continues to see downward trends in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. 

More than a dozen counties in the state saw their transmission levels lower this week, including Salt Lake County where a new moderate status means events including Utah Jazz games can now have fans sit without distancing, albeit all wearing masks.

Gov. Spencer Cox, in a celebratory mood, also moved up eligibility to be vaccinated against the virus up for the third-straight week – this time announcing that as of Monday, anyone age 50 and over in the state is eligible to get the vaccine. 

Garfield County, which was one of the first in the state to be placed on the “Low” level of the COVID-19 Transmission Index on Feb. 18, moved from low to high in one week.

Because of that, restaurants and bars in Panguitch and other areas of Garfield County that had no restrictions since mid-February are now required to have at least 6 feet between tables and patrons. Physical distancing must also be maintained in fitness centers and at entertainment and sporting events.

Graphic showing the restrictions under the revised Utah COVID-19 Transmission Index as of March. 4, 2021. | Background photo by Pixabay, graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said she understands it is tough to reclose a Pandora’s box of sorts as far as a county back into restrictions but that Garfield can serve as a warning for places like Washington County that having less restrictions doesn’t mean all personal responsibility goes out the window. 

“It’s a good reason that if you do go into moderate or low to remain vigilant, you’re definitely not out of the woods. It means we should remain cautious,” Dunn said.  

Such restrictions have also remained in place in Iron, Kane and Beaver counties but are only recommended in Washington County, which maintained its moderate status in the transmission index for a second straight week. 

The change came to Garfield County after the percentage of COVID-19 tests that came back positive went from 3.75% to 11.11% and the rate of Garfield County residents with the virus went from 236.2 per 100,000 to 629.9.

At the time restrictions were lifted, Garfield County had seen one new infection in eight days. It has seen 18 new infections in the last week.

David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said there is “nothing notable” about why Garfield County has seen a hike in new COVID-19 infections and blames the small population of the county (4,998 according to the U.S. Census) for causing a burden as far as a couple dozen new infections causing a drastic change in infection rates.

“Our smaller counties are inordinately effected by case increases,” Heaton said. “The rate of per 100,000 weighs cases heavier in a population of several thousand.”  

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 March 4, 2021. | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

In Iron, Beaver and Kane counties, the number of new infections have plateaued in the last two weeks, albeit at a high level that is keeping restrictions in place. For the second-straight week, Kane County has the worst rate of COVID-19 infections and test positivity in the state. 

The one area in Southern Utah that is following the downward trend being seen in the rest of the state is its most populous: Washington County, which continues to see its infection rate plummet to the point where there have been less than 50 new infections per day.  

However, as the cycle of the virus usually takes two to three weeks to show up in state and local public health statistics, it remains to be seen if Washington County will be able to maintain its downward trends after moving from high to moderate last week and seeing most restrictions for restaurants, bars and events lifted. 

The move to lessen restrictions in Garfield County three weeks ago and Washington County last week is not the first time Utah has tried to loosen restrictions under the COVID-19 Transmission Index in Southern Utah.

On Oct. 29, the state announced that Iron County was being moved to moderate, and it became the first county allowed to briefly stop its mask mandate. Rich Saunders, Utah Department of Health, said that Iron County deserved to be “rewarded” for bringing new infections down.

At the time, Iron County had 940 infections and three deaths in the pandemic. What followed was the largest surge of the pandemic that saw infections and deaths in Iron County double in four weeks.

Cox used similar language in regard to Garfield County upon their restrictions being lifted on Feb. 18, saying that the county should be “rewarded” and should be “celebrating.” He said the same Thursday in regard to around 13 additional Utah counties that moved from high to either moderate or low. 

But Cox said he was also cautious, saying he was not planning to follow the lead of other Republican governors in Texas and Mississippi to remove all mask mandates – sticking to the plan revealed last week to remove the mask mandate in low-transmission counties only after the state has reached 70% of Utahns, or 1,633,000 people, receiving at least a first dose of the vaccine. 

Gov. Spencer Cox gives his first State of the State address before the Utah Legislature, Salt Lake City, Utah, Jan. 21, 2021 | Pool photo, St. George News

As of Thursday, 785,523 people in the state (up more than 300,000 in one week) and 37,218 people in Southern Utah have received their first dose of the vaccine. 

Nevertheless, in the wake of the moves by some states to end COVID-19 restrictions, some Utah state legislators are calling for an end to all COVID-19 restrictions and a full “return to normal” now. Something Cox signaled Thursday he wasn’t on board with.

“I hate that we’re having these fights again when we’re so close to the end of this. I would hate to see something set this back when we’re this close,” Cox said, noting that while Utah has been among the state with the fewest restrictions, having no restrictions like what was seen in South Dakota would have been disastrous here. “We have a fourth of the deaths the Dakotas have. I think we’re doing it the right way.”

Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, who had been a critic of state mandates in the past and whose bill to curtail some of the governor’s pandemic emergency powers is expected to be voted for possible passage in the Utah House in the next 24 hours, told Thursday that he would not support a removal of the state’s mask mandate at this time.

File photo of State Sen. Evan Vickers speaks during retirement party for outgoing Brian Head Mayor H.C. “Dutch” Deutschlander, Brian Head, Utah, Jan. 8, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“We have to be cautious and we have to be careful and not allow something to derail that train,” Vickers, who serves as Senate Majority Leader, said. 

Both Cox and Saunders use the same analogy that ending the COVID-19 fight now would be like jumping off the ship into deep waters just because the shore can be seen.

Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare who was among the first doctors to treat COVID-19 in Utah last March, thinks more in the terms of the kind of distance running events that were prevalent in St. George before the pandemic.

“This is a marathon, and a marathon is 26 miles. You don’t stop running at mile 20,” Vento said. “We have to keep running to the finish line.”

Vaccines open up for everyone 50 and over

A day after President Joe Biden said he expected everyone to be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of May, Cox set a more optimistic timetable for all Utahns.

“We hope to have every Utahn eligible for the vaccine by the start of April,” Cox said. “That’s what we’re shooting for.”

A person receives the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in March 2021 at a drive-thru clinic at Intermountain Orthopedic Specialty Hospital. Murray, Utah | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Just a few weeks ago, the state’s timetable had this week being the week that those ages 65 and over and those with some high-risk comorbidities would first be eligible to receive the vaccine.

But Cox moved that up to Feb. 18 and has, in the last few weeks, used his weekly COVID-19 press conference to make announcements about moving the vaccine eligibility up. 

And this week was no exemption, as Cox announced that as of Monday, every person in the state 50 years of age and older is eligible for the vaccine. 

Also made eligible are those with any form of diabetes, those with chronic kidney disease and anyone considered “obese” with a body mass index of 30 and above.

For example, a person who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs 180 pounds or more is eligible for the vaccine as of Monday. A BMI calculator from the National Institutes of Health can be used at this link

“We feel confident we can do this because of more supply coming in,” Cox said. “The people getting the vaccine are crying because they’re so happy they’re able to hug their grandchildren again.”

Additional supply is also becoming evident on the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s vaccine sign-up page.  As recently as Monday, getting an appointment still involved a scramble of getting a slot as soon as it went online, like trying to get tickets for a Billie Eilish concert.

Now, there are plenty of appointments available on the page with additional appointments seemingly being added daily. Residents can be alerted to when those new appointments are added by texting SWUHEALTH to 888777.

The mad scramble appears to be no more. 

Also helping are several more sources coming online in the last few days and weeks besides the local health district to get the vaccine, as well as an additional vaccine from Johnson and Johnson joining those from Moderna and Pfiser.

A vial of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine seen in March 2021 at a drive-thru clinic at Intermountain Orthopedic Specialty Hospital. Murray, Utah | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

St. George Regional Hospital is now administering COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Also, health provider NOMI Health has made a deal to use Larry H. Miller Megaplex movie theater locations as mass vaccination sites and has started such drives in Northern Utah. Though a spokesperson with Nomi Health said Monday there is no timetable yet for Megaplex locations in Cedar City and St. George.

Retail pharmacies at Smiths, Albertsons and Walmart were joined this week by Harmons’ locations in Santa Clara and St. George.

The Federal Drug Administration’s emergency approval of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine last weekend, which requires just one shot as opposed the two needed for Moderna and Pfizer, is giving a big supply boost this week. 

While the Johnson and Johnson vaccine is 85% effective in preventing disease as opposed to the 90% to 95% effectiveness of the other vaccines, Dunn said there’s no reason to be choosy.

“I was asked which vaccine is the best one to get,” Dunn said. “The best vaccine you can get is the first one you can get.”

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Those who can currently get first dose of the vaccine: Everyone ages 65 and over; K-12 teachers and staff; those that work in nonhospital health care facilities (those in clinics, pharmacies, dentists or other medical offices); and first responders, including law enforcement, firefighters and EMTs; Those with the following health conditions – Transplant recipients, having had certain cancers, immunocompromised state including HIV, severe kidney disease, uncontrolled diabetes, obese with a body mass index greater than 40, hepatitis, chronic heart disease, but not high blood pressure, lung disease besides asthma, downs syndrome or cerebral palsy, those who have had strokes or dementia, sickle-cell anemia.
  • Those who can also get first dose of the vaccine as of Monday: Everyone ages 50 and over, those with all forms of diabetes, chronic kidney disease and obese individuals with a body mass index at 30 or more.
  • Those who can receive the second dose: Those who received their first injection 28 days or more before the appointment time.
  • Must register in advance online for an appointment time.
  • Must have a personal ID, employment ID (if necessary) and wear a short-sleeve shirt at appointment.
  • Proof of residency is required, though as of Feb. 25 a person does not have to reside in the county they are receiving the vaccine. Part-time residents can get vaccinated with proof of residency.
  • Vaccines are free of charge.
  • Those without email addresses or unable to make reservations online can get help at a specialized hotline at 435-986-2549.
  • To get alerts for when new vaccine appointments are added with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, text SWUHEALTH to 888777.

Washington County:

Where: St. George Active Life Center, 245 N. 200 West, St George

Reservations: Click to register 

Iron County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Cedar City office, 260 DL Sargent Drive, Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register 

Kane County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Kanab office, 445 N. Main St., Kanab.

Reservations: Click to register 

Garfield County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Panguitch office, 601 Center St. Panguitch.

Reservations: Click to register

Beaver County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Beaver Office,  75 1175 North, Beaver.

Reservations: Click to register

St. George Regional Hospital:

Where: St. George Regional Hospital,  1380 E Medical Center Dr., St. George, 84790.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 745 N Dixie Dr in St. George and 915 Red Cliffs Dr. in Washington City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 1189 E. 700 South in St. George and 3520 Pioneer Parkway in Santa Clara.

Reservations: Click to register

Smith’s Food and Drug:

Where: 20 N. Bluff St. and 565 S. Mall Drive in St. George and 633 S. Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 625 W. Telegraph St. in Washington City and 1330 S. Providence Center Dr. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

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 March. 4, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 26,943 (48.9 new infections per day in seven days, rising since Feb. 25)

  • Note: County numbers are as of Wednesday.
  • Washington County: 20,189 (29.3 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 5,036 (11.7 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 575 (6.7 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 437 (3 per day, rising)
  • Beaver County: 656 (2.3 per day, rising)

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

  • St. George: 10 (falling)
  • Washington City: 6 (falling)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 6 (falling)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 1 (falling)
  • Cedar City: 12 (falling)

Deaths: 235 (1.6 per day, rising, numbers may be reflecting deaths reported before March and confirmed as COVID-19 this week)

  • Washington County: 184 
  • Iron County: 32 
  • Garfield County: 9 
  • Kane County: 4
  • Beaver County: 6

Hospitalized: 16 (falling)

Active cases: 1,232 (falling)

Current Utah seven-day average: 558 (falling)

Vaccines shipped to  Southern Utah: 65,650 (+10,600)

Number of initial vaccine injections in Southern Utah: 37,218 31,361 (+5,857)

Number of fully vaccinated in Southern Utah: 18,333 15,581 (+2,452)

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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