Utahns answer challenge to bring new COVID-19 infections down, but doctors warn it isn’t a finish line

ST. GEORGE — Utah has crossed the goal line set out by Gov. Gary Herbert at the start of the month to average less than 500 new coronavirus cases a day by Saturday as signs continue that the spread of COVID-19 is easing in the state.

Louie Brown and her son Nico, 3, feed a giraffe as they wear their masks at Utah’s Hogle Zoo on July 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

At the same time, one of the lead doctors with Intermountain Healthcare said the doctors and nurses at places like Dixie Regional Medical Center need a breather.

The Utah Department of Health said as of Friday, the rolling seven-day average for new coronavirus infections in the state has been 457. 

At a press conference on July 9, the governor issued a “challenge” that if the state’s average seven-day case rate wasn’t below 500, he may be forced to recommend a step back to the “orange” level of restrictions on businesses and other activities, as well as consider a statewide mask mandate beyond that already issued for schools and state buildings. 

At the time the governor set his challenge, the state had been averaging 583.7 new cases a day, while the Southwest Utah Public Health Department had been averaging 42.4 new cases a day. 

As of Friday, Southern Utah’s average was down to 32.7 per day.

If there was any physical sign of the declining case rate locally, at midday Friday the line of cars for the drive-through coronavirus testing at the 400 East campus of Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George was about four to five cars long. In the past few weeks, the line had been stretching around the block with wait times beyond one hour. 

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, is still cautious. She said testing has also been down in the last week. Also, a large deal of the reduction has come from Salt Lake County, where there has been a mask mandate for the last three weeks. 

Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 30, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“Mask policies help the cause, but they are correlations but not causations,” Dunn said. “The last three to four days has seen a dropoff in our tests, so that’s why we need to be cautiously optimistic, but it’s something to keep an eye on in next week.”

Herbert also expressed concern that Utahns might take the foot off the accelerator during his press conference Thursday. He isn’t alone among officials that hope not to see a repeat of the last two months when the rate of infections skyrocketed after the “Stay Safe, Stay Home” recommendations were ended and businesses opened up.

What we face today is like the game of whack a mole. When we solve one problem, there’s another one,” Herbert said. “The solution is us using the best science we have. We’re not perfect but moving in the right direction.”

As for the caregivers on the frontline, this isn’t as much a time of optimism as a time to take a breath. Though there isn’t that much time for that as hospitalizations and intensive care unit usage is actually up this week. The Utah Department of Health said Friday that 66.3% of the ICU beds are occupied and there are 13 local residents currently hospitalized at Dixie Regional Medical Center for the virus, among others from around the three-state region. 

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain Healthcare, said Dixie Regional nearly hit capacity two weeks ago and is far from quiet in the COVID-19 areas now.

“For the most part, we’re heading in the right direction. But for those on our floors, this is a very tough disease. We have young patients who are struggling right now,” Stenehjem said. “This is really tiring and wearing on our doctors and nurses. And we’re just beginning. I hope we’ll have a lull, but winter is coming up. There’s stress and fatigue in our caregivers. We’re exhausted.”

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 July 30, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 2,855 (32.7 new infections per day in seven days, falling)

  • Washington County: 2,233 (24.0 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 500 (6.7 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 54 (1.0 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 42 (0.8 per day, falling) 
  • Beaver County: 26 (0.6 per day, falling) 

Deaths: 24 (0.3 per day, falling)

  • Washington County: 20
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2

Hospitalized: 13 (rising)

Recovered: 2,184

Current Utah seven-day average (Goal of less than 500 by Aug. 1 ): 457 (falling)

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