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Health, Science & Environment

Coronavirus And Utah: What You Need To Know

Photo of a hand on a podium with a mask.
Associated Press

Total Cases: 334,889 | Total Hospitalizations: 12,948 | Current Hospitalizations: 481| Deaths: 1,582 | Total Vaccines Given: 222,275

Utah reported 1,771 new cases of COVID-19 Saturday. For the past week, the positivity rate is 18.9% — well above the 5% that the Department of Health says indicates a flattening of the curve in the state.

The seven-day average for daily cases is 1,804. Currently, 481 people are hospitalized for COVID-19 down from 581 a week ago. Of those people, 196 are in the ICU for treatment and 90% of all ICU beds statewide are occupied.

The state reported Saturday 11 more people have died from the disease — but health officials said two people died before Dec. 31. So far, 1,958,154 people have been tested.

According to Johns Hopkins University, there have been 24,884,720 cases and 415,421 deaths in the United States.

Utah Cases By Location


A Snapshot Of The Latest COVID News In Utah

  • The new, U.K. variant of COVID-19 has been found in Utah. A Salt Lake County man tested positive for the strain last month. Dr. Angela Dunn said Jan. 15 the virus has been changing every week since it was first identified. And this strain is more contagious. “This mutation has allowed it to be able to more readily attach to your cells and cause infection,” she said. “So it takes less effort for the virus to actually cause you to be ill and transmit it to others.” But Dunn said there is some good news: The U.K. variant doesn’t appear to be more deadly, and the current vaccines still work against it.
  • Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled his nearly $22 billion budget Jan. 11. It includes $250 million proposed to help in the fight against COVID-19. Of that, $100 million would go to the public health response, including vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing. Public K-12 schools would get $50 million to help them respond to the pandemic. The budget recommends $100 million for grants to help industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic, including the restaurant and hospitality industries.
  • Gov. Spencer Cox announced Dec. 8 a new effort to bring down COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities. Going forward, any time there is an outbreak at one, the Utah Department of Health will send a team to administer monoclonal antibodies treatments to sick residents. It’s a drug that works well on people who are not sick enough to be hospitalized and can prevent serious illness from the coronavirus. President Donald Trump received it after he tested positive in October.
  • The state’s department of health will also expand free rapid antigen testing. Officials announced Dec. 4 more than 20 new test sites across the state. On Dec. 11, they announced another eight locations.
  • Health officials reported a record 4,672 new COVID-19 cases Dec. 31. That marked the second time in the month of December Utah saw more than 4,000 cases in a single day. Officials said in a statement the Dec. 31 case count is “a sobering reminder that we are still in this battle.” They said if people traveled for the holidays, they should assume they may have been exposed and should limit their interactions with others.

Statewide Mask Mandate

Masks are required statewide in public indoor settings, like grocery stores and restaurants and outdoors where social distancing isn’t feasible. The requirement for masks expires Feb. 22. They must also be worn in schools until June 15.

COVID-19 Vaccines

Utah hospitals received their first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 14 and began vaccinating employees the next day.

The state is currently in its first phase of vaccine distribution, which includes hospital health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff, non-hospital health care workers, teachers and school staff and public health and tribal health care workers.

In his first COVID-19 press conference as governor, Spencer Cox announced he will issue an executive order with an aggressive plan for vaccine distribution across the state.

“It’s unacceptable to have vaccines sitting on shelves,” Cox said.

Speeding Up Distribution

Per his executive order, local health districts will handle distribution going forward, and eligible Utahns will be able to sign up to get a vaccine through their local health department.

“These are changes that will simplify the process and make it easier for all Utahns to know when they can get the vaccine, where they can get the vaccine, and to make sure that they are getting the vaccine and vaccines are not sitting on the shelf,” he said.

Cox's executive order requires organizations to distribute their vaccines within a week of receiving it. If they don't, their inventory will be reduced, “and extra doses will be taken and redistributed,” Cox said.

The idea is to administer the vaccine quickly in order to qualify for more from the federal government, speeding up the timeline for everyone.

“It's hard to argue that we should be getting more when we're not using the vaccine that we have already received,” he said.

Timeline Changes

Cox promised that any teacher or person over the age of 70 who wants to be vaccinated will be by the end of February.

According to Cox, 153 out of 353 long term care facilities in the state have been vaccinated through partnerships with national pharmacies. He said the pharmacies have promised him that they will finish vaccinating every facility by Jan. 23. People who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 90 days will not be eligible, because they have antibodies from fighting the disease.

Cox said the state will also focus on making vaccines available in minority communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 since March.

“We must take extra caution not to make the same mistakes we made early in the early in the pandemic without having testing sites available in those areas,” he said.

Some experts have suggested that, in order to reach widespread immunity faster, states should distribute first doses of the vaccine to more people and hold off on administering the second one. Cox said there’s no plan to do that in Utah yet.

“We will not do that as a state until there is a consensus,” he said.

Safety And Effectiveness

Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been approved for emergency use by the Federal Drug Administration. Clinical trials found each to be close to 95% effective at preventing patients from developing COVID-19 symptoms after two doses, given 21 and 28 days apart, respectively.

There are short term side effects expected with each vaccine — things like fatigue and pain where the shot was given — some of which have reportedly been pretty severe in some patients. But infectious disease specialist Dr. Joel Trachtenberg said those are normal reactions and signs the body is priming itself to protect from the virus.

The potential long term side effects aren’t really known, given the quick timeline, but Trachtenberg said vaccines in general are incredibly safe and historically have been the best way to control the spread of harmful viruses.

Should You Take It?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone get the vaccine, even if they are at high risk for serious complications or have already had COVID-19. Dr. Anthony Fauci said that somewhere between 70-90% of the U.S. would need to get vaccinated in order to develop herd immunity, when enough of the population is immune to a disease that those who are not are still protected.

And while some people may be skeptical of the vaccine, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, said the science is sound.

“We all feel that this vaccine is safe and effective,” he said. “We feel that this vaccine needs to be deployed in our health care settings and in our communities as soon as possible.”

COVID-19 In Schools

After the majority of Utah’s schools have returned back to class, several public K-12 districts and universities have reported outbreaks. All colleges and universities must test all their students within 10 days of them arriving back on campus in 2021, health officials announced Dec. 17. The state scrapped a requirement to test all students bi-weekly because not enough tests were available and universities were not able to handle the logistics of testing all their students every two weeks.

Instead, colleges and universities will be required to test people within 24 hours of the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, as well as do randomized testing.

Former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert announced Dec. 17, the state now recommends that students who have close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19, do not have to quarantine, if that exposure occurred while they were both wearing masks.

The Utah Department of Health reported Saturday there have been 27,736 cases in schools since classes resumed. Of those cases, 21,968 are among students.

As of Jan. 23, the Davis School District in Davis County has the most total and active cases in the state with 4,705 total cases among its more than 73,000 students. Of those cases, 429 are considered active.

As of Jan. 21, Brigham Young University reported 215 active cases during its winter semester. The university had 3,634 cases during the fall semester.

As of Jan. 23 Utah Valley University has seen 1,598 total cases — 1,323 have been among students and 275 have been among employees.

The University of Utah is currently in the high transmission level, allowing only some in-person classes and requiring face coverings to be worn at all times in public spaces. The university saw 2,457 self-reported cases during the fall semester. It is reporting 304 cases among students and staff during the spring semester as of Jan. 20.

Utah State University reported 180 active cases of COVID-19 as of Jan. 22, with 165 of those cases on its Logan campus. Since March 2020, USU has seen 2,695 cases.

Long-term Care Facilities

As of Jan. 22, there have been 1,012 COVID-19 investigations at Utah’s long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes and assisted living locations.

Of people living in those facilities, 506 have died and 4,643 residents have tested positive for the virus. In case of an outbreak at a facility, Utah’s epidemiologist said the state can use its mobile strike teams to assist. There are 32 locations that have more than 10 active cases and 19 of those have more than 20.

People over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions are considered to be at high risk of dying from COVID-19.

Navajo Nation And Minority Communities Among Hardest Hit

The Utah portion of the Navajo Nation has been the hardest hit area per capita in the state. The Nation’s president has imposed strict measures — like weekend curfews — to help keep cases there in check. As of Jan. 23 the Utah Department of Health reported 1,023 cases there.

On the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, state health officials reported a total of 310 cases as of Jan. 22.

Data from the Utah Department of Health show people of color make up nearly 25% of the state’s population but 44% of its coronavirus cases.

The Latinx community alone accounts for about 21% of all cases in the state, but only 14% of Utah’s population. As of Jan. 22, there have been more than 71,000 cases among Utah’s Hispanic/Latinx residents. Community leaders have said the number of cases are in large part due to people having jobs where they can’t work from home or properly socially distance.

State officials are also holding press briefings in Spanish.

Native Americans, Alaskan and Hawaiian Natives, and Pacific Islanders in Utah continue to die from COVID-19 at well over twice the per-capita rate of any other demographic.

Read more: KUER's ongoing coverage of the coronavirus

COVID-19 And Utah: FAQ

  • What are the levels of the transmission index?
  • How are those levels determined?
  • Under what criteria do schools move online?
  • What’s the impact on employment in Utah?
  • How are worship services being affected?
  • How is this affecting national parks and college sports?

Transmission Index Levels

There are three transmission levels counties can be placed in: high, moderate or low. Each level comes with a certain set of restrictions, like mask requirements, how large public gatherings can be and how businesses, such as bars and restaurants, can operate.

“It’s really time for a new game plan,” Herbert said when the plan was announced. “This guidance system is based on a calculated amount of infection and transmission that happens in our communities and provides Utahns with concrete actions to help stem that spread.”

Masks Requirements

Masks are required statewide until Feb. 22.

High Level: Beaver, Box Elder, Cache, Carbon, Davis, Duchesne, Emery, Garfield, Grand, Iron, Juab, Kane, Millard, Morgan, Rich, Salt Lake, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Summit, Tooele, Uintah, Utah, Wasatch, Washington, Wayne, Weber

Utah Department of Health

Moderate Level: None

Low Level: Daggett, Piute

Determining The Transmission Level

Each county’s level is based on three metrics: its seven-day average positivity rate, the two-week case rate per 100,000 people and statewide ICU utilization. Levels are determined if a county meets just two of the three metric levels.

“What's really encouraging here is that we are using data, which is an objective measure, to drive where counties are,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said.

Transmission levels will be reviewed weekly with updates announced every Thursday. In order for a county to move from a higher to a lower level, they must meet the requirements for at least two weeks. However, counties can move to tighter restrictions weekly.

Public And Social Gatherings

Health officials pointed to the need to control the spread of the virus at “casual social gatherings.” Those are everyday situations where people are spending time with family and friends in places like their homes or at parks.

“The virus knows no boundaries,” Rich Saunders, interim executive director of the Utah Department of Health said. “Because we let down our guard in these settings, it's a popular point of viral spread. The virus doesn't care how much we love to be around each other and how much fun we want to have.”

The mask mandate could carry fines for businesses that fail to require employees to wear masks, promote customers wearing masks or post signage that explains the mask policy.

The state recommends that, if gathering socially with people you don’t live with, Utahns should stay at least six feet apart and wear masks. In high and moderate transmission counties, health officials say Utahns should limit those physically-distanced gatherings to 10 people or less. In low transmission counties, the recommendation is 50 people or less.

At public gatherings organized by businesses or organizations in high or moderate transmission counties, a public health order requires there to be six feet of distance between households, but performers and athletes don’t have to follow that requirement. In low transmission counties, six feet of distance is strongly encouraged.

Organizers of public gatherings must fill out an “Event Management Template,” which provides a plan to keep the event safe.

Online Schooling

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said if three cases are linked to a K-12 classroom, the health department recommends the class go online for two weeks. Schools that have 1,500 or more students and staff should go virtual if 1% of the school population has COVID-19.

Schools with fewer than 1,500 people are advised to go virtual after 15 active positive cases are discovered. The Utah Department of Health announced a “test to stay” program on Dec. 17 that allows students and staff that get a rapid antigen test to continue in-person learning.

If a student tests positive for COVID-19, their entire household is required to quarantine for 14 days, and that student and their school-aged siblings would not be allowed to attend in person classes during that period.

Teachers and staff who test positive for COVID-19 would be required to quarantine at home until they have been fever-free for 24 hours and it has been 10 days since their symptoms began.

COVID-19 And Unemployment

For the week of Jan. 10- Jan. 17, 6,814 Utahns filed new claims for unemployment benefits, according to the Department of Workforce Services. Of those, 1,427 people filed new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, the fund set up for gig and non-traditional workers.

Nearly 31,000 people in Utah received payments during that time, while 1,641 Utahns stopped filing for benefits.

Source: Utah Department of Workforce Services

How Are Worship Services Affected?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Jan. 21 April’s General Conference will be virtual again this year. In 2020, both the April and October conferences were held online. Eight of the highest ranking Church leaders have also received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. They all qualified because they’re over the age of 70.

On Nov. 12 the Church released new guidelines for weekly worship. Second-hour services are to be held virtually for all congregations. In-person gatherings are limited to those only with a “religious purpose.” Also, in-person attendance at baptisms, funerals and weddings should be limited to immediate family and those officiating the service.

Top Church leadership released a letter in early September that directed Utah area leaders to create a plan for in-person or virtually based on local conditions.

The letter from the Church’s First Presidency also said that stakes could proceed with November conferences either virtually or “with careful social distancing.”

In May, the Church also asked all its members in Utah to wear a face mask while in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Select temples in the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia have reopened for marriage ceremonies. The majority of temples will move into Phase Two of the Church’s reopening plan on Oct. 19. That means people will be able to perform all living ordinances by appointment.

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, which covers the state of Utah, announced parishes may resume public masses as long as they follow recommended health guidelines.

Outdoor Recreation And Collegiate Sports

The Pac-12 and Mountain West voted to bring back fall sports with truncated football seasons. The University of Utah canceled its first two games of the season that were set to be played Nov. 7 and Nov. 13, due to positive COVID-19 cases among student-athletes. The West Coast Conference and Big Sky have postponed their fall sports season. That affects Weber State and Southern Utah University.

Bryce Canyon National Park reopened May 6 with limited access and resources. 

Capitol Reef National Park opened its visitors centers, Gifford House Museum and the Fruita Campground. Visitors centers restrooms remain closed while being upgraded.

Cedar Breaks National Monument’s scenic road has closed for the winter but the park is still open from its northern entrance.

Zion National Park and Dinosaur National Monument have resumed limited operations. Zion is open but visitors need to reserve a shuttle ticket a day in advance to go up the main canyon. Most trails are open but some facilities are still closed.

All monument roads and trails at Dinosaur are open. Campgrounds will begin closing Oct. 19 for the season. The Quarry Visitor Center and Exhibit Hall are open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Timed tickets to the Quarry Exhibit must be reserved online. The Canyon Visitor Center on the Colorado side is now closed for the season.

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks have resumed roads, trails and restroom access.

Many of Utah’s ski resorts are selling season passes for this winter, but with discount or refund plans available.

Alterra Mountain Company, which owns Deer Valley and Solitude Mountain ski areas, said in an effort to control the number of skiers, they're eliminating window sales and limiting the number of tickets sold in advance.

Season pass holders will get priority for riding lifts and slopes. Operators also plan to enforce policies such as mandatory face coverings, social distancing and crowd management on and off the mountain.

Riders can expect many touchless upgrades, from parking kiosks to faucets and sanitizing stations, plus additional bathrooms to reduce lines, grab-n-go food and reduced seating inside. Solitude hopes to open Nov. 20.

Updated: January 23, 2021 at 12:16 PM MST
Corrected: December 15, 2020 at 9:41 AM MST
A previous version of this story misstated the amount of time between doses for the Moderna vaccine.
Corrected: September 24, 2020 at 4:50 PM MDT
Previous versions of this story misstated what the seven-day average rate of increase meant for Utahns’ efforts in flattening the curve.
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