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Health, Science & Environment

Utah County Coronavirus Spike Linked To Parties, But Are They Completely To Blame?

A photo of LaVell Edwards Stadium on campus of Brigham Young University.
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Provo, United States - October 2, 2016: LaVell Edwards Stadium on the campus of Brigham Young University. BYU is a private research university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

For the first time since the summer, Utah has seen an uptick in the number of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. On Wednesday the state reported 747 new cases and about 40% of them are from Utah County.

State health officials have confirmed that cases are rising in the area, and college-aged students are largely to blame. At a press conference last week, Gov. Gary Herbert pointed to large gatherings among Brigham Young University students.

“Off campus some of their students have been conducting themselves in very close quarters with no masks and no social distancing, and that’s really a situation that could increase infection and transmission rates,” he said.

A Utah County Health Department spokesperson said they “suspect” it’s due to dance parties and school being back in session.

One controversial party group, Young/Dumb, has been linked to many cases. Co-founder Kwaku El said in an Instagram video that parties his company has thrown are meant to invigorate the community.

“All summer long people had been caught up in their houses and couldn’t do a lot,” El said in the video posted on Aug. 11. “I was reading about how suicide attempts have gone through the roof, people are miserable and sad and people want to have fun.”

A recent report from KSL.com found that while suicide rates have actually gone down slightly in Utah during the pandemic, calls to crisis hotlines have increased. The pandemic has also been linked to increased cases of anxiety and depression in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Young adults are at low risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, which may mean they don’t see a reason to change their social habits. BYU sophomore Abby Murri said she got it from a family member, not gatherings she attended.

“We’re in a college town, and so it’s kind of hard to pinpoint that these big parties are what it’s spreading from,” Murri said. “We did go to those but that’s not how we got COVID.”

Some observers have said it’s unfair to blame students entirely for the rise in cases. In a Twitter thread on Tuesday, BYU Public Health Professor Chantel Sloan pointed to — among other things — dense housing, a lack of arrival testing and mixed messaging throughout the community for contributing to the problem.

Lynne S. McNeill is a folklorist at Utah State University who studies online culture and has been looking at COVID parties throughout the country. Even if the Provo parties aren’t like the notorious COVID parties that have happened at some colleges, their reputation is what most people think of when they hear about college students getting together, she said.

And she agrees with Sloan, people need to take a step back from shaming students.

“Rather than condemn college students for throwing parties, it may be that there are much more practical, useful things we can do to stem this virus on college campuses,” McNeill said.

BYU stated Monday it has disciplined 15 students for not following the university’s coronavirus guidelines, both on and off campus. And as cases increase, health officials have reiterated that social distancing and masks are the best ways to slow the spread of the virus.

Updated: September 18, 2020 at 4:10 PM MDT
This story has been updated to include recent mental health statistics during the pandemic.
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