‘It’s pretty much over’: southwest Utah health director says COVID-19 is becoming ‘just another disease’

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

ST. GEORGE — While not officially declaring the pandemic over, the head of Southern Utah’s health district said COVID-19 has now entered a new phase where it is just another of the many respiratory diseases people live with.

Southwest Utah Public Health Department Director Dr. David Blodgett listens in to members of the Southwest Utah Public Health Board during their meeting at the department’s Beaver, Utah office. June 10, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Dr. David Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, told St. George News that with every part of Southern Utah except Iron County seeing a low transmission rate, it is time to treat COVID-19 like any other coronavirus, flu or other bug that especially makes itself known in the fall and winter. 

“I think we’re in a phase where we need to start talking about it as part of the diseases we see on a regular basis and kind of treat it that way. It will be part of the infectious, upper respiratory tract infections that we see here,” Blodgett said. “I really think we will see this COVID virus or the coronavirus looking much more like other coronaviruses as we go forward. ”

Blodgett said that current infections are at a plateau that is “going to continue indefinitely” with an occasional slight rise that will still never be more than a fraction of the largest surge that was seen last November and December.

“This will come back as a seasonal disease,” Blodgett said. 

He also said there might be a false sense of the percentage of positive tests going up – such as those seen in Washington County this week and over the last three weeks in Iron County – as fewer people are getting tested, and those that are, are only doing so because they feel ill. 

“People are not going to be tested as long as they’re not sick,” Blodgett said. 

On Thursday, Blodgett presented the current status of COVID-19 in Southern Utah at Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s Beaver office during a meeting of the board, which meets about every two months, and consists of county commissioners, medical professionals and others from the five counties that set public health policy in the area.

Adding to the sense that the COVID-19 pandemic is at or near its end in Southern Utah, he opened his presentation by telling the board, “I don’t know how many more of these we need to do.”

Other board members expressed relief that COVID-19 was not necessarily the only subject dominating the meeting.

Southwest Utah Public Health Department Director Dr. David Blodgett provides information to members of the Southwest Utah Public Health Board during their meeting at the department’s Beaver, Utah office. June 10, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Among those expressing that relief was health board member and Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s pretty much over,” Almquist said. “We’ll never be done because there are always those that will continue to get it through the system, and it’ll continue to be there.”

While agreeing that people should get used to COVID-19 being another disease in a list of diseases, the deputy head of the Utah Department of Health said that people who are not vaccinated should wear masks in public places until they are.  

“We will have to normalize COVID-19  in the way we deal with other diseases,” Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, told St. George News. 

However, when it was noted that many of those who are against getting vaccinated were also those that criticized the calls for wearing masks and taking preventative measures, Hofmann said as part of overall disease prevention, it will be the responsibility of the individual to decide what they want to do for their health.   

“We have a choice to make as individuals. We’re not going to be able to bring every single Utahn along, but those thinking about getting vaccinated need to do it now. It has been a difficult entity for long enough, and it is going to have to be normalized, but every Utahn has a choice.”

Southwest Utah Public Health Board member and Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist takes part in the boards meeting at the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s Beaver, Utah office, June 10, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

In another sign of the transition of COVID-19 from pandemic to infectious disease, the governor’s office held its first COVID-19 press conference in two weeks on Thursday, but Gov. Spencer Cox wasn’t there. Citing other commitments for the governor, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson led the press conference. But she wasn’t yet ready to raise the “normal” flag.

“Our message is not that things are back to normal. We still want things to get back to normal,” Henderson said, though she still echoed Blodgett and Hofmann’s assertion that COVID-19 is more of a personal, rather than public, health concern in Utah now. “We can’t hold everyone’s hand forever. We have to rely on people to be responsible.”

At the tail-end of the pandemic, a look back and ahead

Blodgett said by his estimation, a third of the population of Southern Utah was positive at some point with COVID-19 since the first local case of the virus in March, adding that one out of every three cases was never included in the Utah Department of Health’s official total of 29,408 infections. Blodgett said some never got tested or were asymptomatic and never actually felt sick. 

There was a bit of skepticism expressed by some board members. “I don’t trust the numbers,” board member and Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens said, citing a friend’s father who was re-identified as having died of COVID-19 months after his death. 

When asked about his skepticism by St. George News after the meeting, Cozzens said he would not comment but would provide a statement later. Cozzens later messaged that he “would never have mentioned that if I knew the press was there.”

In all, since the first Southern Utah COVID-19 case was recorded on March 21, 2020, 1,512 local residents were hospitalized and 275 died according to the Utah Department of Health. 

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

But Blodgett and other health officials are quick to note that as of Thursday, there has not been a COVID-19 death in Southern Utah in 22 days (though some deaths from as far back as January have been added to the total in the last three weeks after further examination by the state’s medical examiner.)

Blodgett said the biggest success story of the pandemic locally was that the mortality rate of those 85 and over in Southern Utah was lower than the rest of the state despite the area having three times the population in that age group compared with the rest of the state. 

“This is a badge of honor,” Blodgett told the board. “With the 85-and-older group, we did a great job protecting them in our community.”  

Almquist said the local strategy made early on to focus on the elderly population for both prevention of the disease and, later, vaccinations from it proved to be a winning strategy.

“We did target early on the 85 and older group. Our care centers were very responsive to the requests that the health department made,” Almquist said. “Compared apples to apples throughout the state, we didn’t have the deaths that other places had in that age group.”

One thing that will be remembered about the COVID-19 pandemic was the uncertainty about the disease in the beginning. Uncertainty about how it was spread and how contagious it was. The initial thought that masks wouldn’t help, only to be shown in studies months later as an effective solution to preventing transmission.  

Blodgett said another thing that proved less reliable about determining the spread of COVID-19 was seeing where the crowds were.

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

Blodgett said this disease was not really spread at large events or by going to the supermarket, though he noted that may have come because such places required masks and other preventative measures.

“This was not a disease that spread in big events. This spread among families who took off their masks to hug each other and let their guard down after they got home. The place we needed the most protection was in the home.”

Along with new infections, Blodgett said hospitalizations have also plateaued indefinitely, with one to two COVID-19 admissions per day to local hospitals as opposed to the more than 10 per day seen during the worst of the pandemic. 

Blodgett also said he is not alarmed about the number of COVID-19 variants out there, especially outside the United States where COVID-19 is still a rampant pandemic in some parts of the world allowing for more mutations of the virus.

The health director said viruses always mutate. 

“People act like it’s a big deal,” Blodgett said. “Drift mutation happens continuously.”

Experts with the Centers for Disease Control have said each of the vaccines has thus far proved effective against every variant.

Iron County continues to lag behind the rest of Southern Utah

Blodgett expressed some frustration to the board that Iron County remains “stubbornly above” the rest of Southern Utah as far as new infections and added “for the life of me, I can’t figure it out.” While all other counties in Southern Utah have been at a low transmission level for nearly a month, Iron County has remained in the moderate range.

Southwest Utah Public Health Board member and Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens, right, listens with fellow board member and Panguitch Elementary Principal Nick Reynolds to a presentation during the board’s meeting at the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s Beaver, Utah office, June 10, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

In those three weeks, Garfield County, which lies just to the east of Iron County, has not seen a single COVID-19 case. 

“I don’t have one explanation other than we’ll watch them. And hopefully the message gets out,” Blodgett said, adding that there is currently one Iron County resident in the hospital with COVID-19.

During the meeting, board member and Kane County Commissioner Andrew Gant joked to Cozzens that Iron County “was being stubborn.”

Cozzens refused to comment when asked by St. George News after the meeting to comment on Iron County remaining higher in COVID-19 infections than the rest of the area.

At the state level, Hofmann previously said the lower vaccination rates seen in Iron County compared to the rest of Southern Utah appears to be playing a role. 

The silver lining: Flu has gone away

Another interesting phenomenon from the local health department perspective, Blodgett said, was the lack of serious influenza cases during the two flu seasons that have coincided with the pandemic. Whereas the Southwest Utah Public Health Department usually tracks hundreds of serious flu cases during the flu season – especially with the older population of Southern Utah – Blodgett said there were a grand total of seven serious flu cases tracked during the two flu seasons combined. 

But Blodgett was quick to say that there was not some secret conspiracy to track flu cases as COVID-19 cases, noting that the number of COVID-19 cases locally was actually undercounted. He said it was actually a side effect that the preventative measures the public took to keep COVID-19 away did an even better job of keeping the flu away. Something echoed by Almquist.

“We did some things for COVID and flu disappeared. Maybe some of the things that caused flu in other seasons, We should wash our hands, stay away from other people if you feel at all unhealthy. Maybe we there’s some positives to come out of it. If there’s a silver lining, maybe we’ll change and do some better things,” Almquist said, squelching speculation by some that flu cases were counted as COVID-19 cases. 

“If somebody is trying to say that the doctors are just transferring one symptom for another and labeling it differently, we have to believe that doctors are up front and that they’re not out there to cheat anybody.”

Vaccine reservation system ending

Besides a plateauing in new infections and hospitalizations, there has also been a plateauing, if not a reduction, in the demand for COVID-19 vaccinations – a trend seen nationwide as it’s becoming questionable that the nation will reach President Joe Biden’s goal of 70% of Americans being vaccinated by July 4.

A resident receives a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine inside the St. George Active Life Center for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s COVID-19 second-dose vaccination clinic on April 6, 2021. St. George, Utah | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

That said, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, 80% of people 80 and older and 76% of those 65 and older in Southern Utah are fully vaccinated, and the number locally is 63% overall. 

But the younger Southern Utahns get, the less likely they are vaccinated, as the local department said 12% of those ages 29 and below are vaccinated. And they aren’t rushing in to get their shot like the older set did. 

With the reduced demand, Blodgett said on June 21, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department will end the online reservation system for receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and switch to walk-ins at all of its offices. The vaccine is already available on a walk-in basis at most local drug stores and retailers, something noted by the lieutenant governor at how easy it is to get the vaccine at this point.

“All you need to do is stay an extra 20 minutes at Walmart,” Henderson said. “That’s all it takes.”

Henderson and Hofmann were also quick to note that at this point, those who are still getting sick and dying from COVID-19 in Utah share one thing in common: They aren’t vaccinated. 

The Utah Department of Health said of the 22,767 total new infections in the state since March, 99.6% have been in unvaccinated people. Of the 1,028 hospitalized, 95% were unvaccinated. Of the 64 who have died of COVID-19, 97% weren’t vaccinated..

“It should be obvious that most vaccines are working to avoid cases, hospitalizations and deaths,” Henderson said. “The vaccines do not alter your DNA. They do not hurt pregnancy. They don’t give you COVID. You don’t need to take my word for it; ask your doctor.”

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Those who can currently get first dose of the vaccine: Everyone ages 12 and over. Those 12-18 can only receive the Pfizer vaccine. Use vaccinefinder.org to find clinics that have the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Those who can receive the second dose: Those who received their first injection 28 days or more before the appointment time.
  • Until June 21, must register in advance online for an appointment time with Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Most pharmacies and stores are offering walk-up appointments.
  • Must wear a short-sleeve shirt at appointment and should have a personal ID.
  • Proof of residency may be required, though 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.
  • To receive a free ride to and from a vaccine appointment through Lyft, call 211.

Washington County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department St. George office, 620 S. 400 East, St George

Reservations: Click to register 

Iron County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Cedar City office, 260 DL Sargent Dr., Cedar City, 84721.

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/Intermountain Healthcare:

Where: 400 East Campus St. George Regional Hospital,  544 S. 400 East, St. George.

Reservations: Click to register

FourPoints Health:

Where: Various locations.

Reservations: Click to register

Revere Health:

Where: Revere Health Campus,  2825 E. Mall Drive, St. George.

Reservations: Click to register

Rocky Vista University:

Where: Rocky Vista University – Southern Utah Campus,  255 E. Center St. in Ivins.

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

Lin’s Marketpace:

Where: 1930 W. Sunset Blvd.  and 2928 E. Mall Drive in St. George, 1120 State St. in Hurricane and 150 N Main St. in Cedar City.

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: 275 S River Rd. in St. George.

Reservations: Walk-ins available. Otherwise, click to register


Where: 2610 Pioneer Rd. in St. George, 625 W. Telegraph St. in Washington City, 180 N. 3400 West in Hurricane and 1330 S. Providence Center Dr. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Walk-ins available. Otherwise, click to register

Family pharmacies:

Where: Several locations

Reservations: Use vaccinefinder.org to find a location near you

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.

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

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