COVID-19 Is Surging In Southwest Utah | KUER 90.1

COVID-19 Is Surging In Southwest Utah

May 28, 2020

ST. GEORGE — Southwest Utah has reached a new high-point of active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, local health officials announced Thursday.

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported 25 new cases on Thursday, marking the biggest single-day jump in the region since the onset of the pandemic.

The department also announced six new hospitalizations, almost doubling the number of local residents who are currently hospitalized due to the virus. 

“When I look at the trend, what I see happening in the hospital, I think it’s hard to not call this a surge event,” said Dr. Patrick Carroll, the medical director at Dixie Regional Medical Center.

The surge comes one week after the state epidemiologist warned that such an event could take place in Southwest Utah.

The Utah Department of Health recommends that hospitals should not exceed a 60% occupancy rate during the pandemic to create a buffer for a potential surge.

In a press briefing on Thursday afternoon, Carroll said that Dixie Regional, which is the biggest hospital in the area, has now surpassed that threshold.

He added that the hospital still has enough beds and has not yet implemented any of its surge contingency plans. But it may have to if current trends continue. 

“This is community spread,” he said. “These are not cases that are all coming from exposure outside of Southern Utah or outside of Washington County.”

Another key shift Carroll identified is that most of the COVID-19 patients receiving care at Dixie Regional are Washington County residents, which was not the case earlier in the pandemic. Most of those patients — but not all, he emphasized — are over 65 years old.

Carroll added that St. George's Hispanic community is being disproportionately affected by the virus. The group makes up 13% of the city’s population, according to 2019 population estimates from the U.S. Census. Carroll did not specify what percentage of COVID-19 patients at his hospital identified as Hispanic or Latino. 

Investigations into the exact cause of each new case are still underway, according to Dave Heaton, a spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. 

But he added that early information suggests that most new infections have been transmitted via “known close contacts,” a group that includes family members, housemates and coworkers.

In an interview on Wednesday, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, told KUER that she had warned of a possible surge based on rising numbers in overall cases, percentage of positive tests and community spread — and diminishing hospital capacity — in the region.

As of Wednesday evening, Dunn said Southwest Utah had reached a fragile plateau, but maintained that strict observation of Utah’s low-risk pandemic response guidelines — which include social distancing and wearing face masks in public — would be needed to prevent the area’s curve from steepening. 

“We still haven’t crossed the finish line. We need to continue being vigilant in the coming months,” she said on Wednesday. “Right now, we’ve got a lot of embers out there and anything could spark a fire.”

David Fuchs is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southwest Bureau in St. George. Follow David on Twitter @davidmfuchs.