After a huge spike around Thanksgiving, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be starting to calm down a bit in Cache County.
The 7-day rolling average of newly detected COVID-19 cases in the Bear River Health District dipped below 100 a day last week, and the 7-day period ending Sunday saw an average of 91 new cases a day.
Bear River Health Department Epidemiologist Caleb Harrison said the governor’s health orders enacted in November appear to have helped with the improvement.
“We certainly saw more compliance with facemask wearing” after the governor’s order, Harrison said, “and I think just in general that communicated the seriousness of the situation. So I think that was a big factor in moving this trend downward.”
For much of that downward trend, BRHD’s percentage of tests coming back positive went up, but that’s coming down now, too. On Monday, BRHD reported that just under 23% of test results over the past seven days came back positive, where the same figure had been reaching the mid-30s in early January. A high percent-positivity can be an indicator that not enough testing is being done to give epidemiologists a good idea of how and where the virus is spreading.
The number of deaths attributable to COVID-19 in the three-county health district is still relatively low but began climbing more rapidly following the November spike. Currently, 56 people have died due to the illness in Cache and Box Elder counties. Box Elder overtook Cache in total number of COVID-19 deaths in early December despite having less than half the population of its neighboring county to the east.
In Cache County, a total of 25 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, while Box Elder is reporting 31. Harrison said two main factors can help explain the difference: Age and underlying health. Cache County has a younger population on average and lower prevalence of conditions that COVID-19 can complicate, such as diabetes, hypertension and asthma.
“The age and the overall, the underlying health of those two populations contributes a lot to that,” Harrison said.
The decrease in the rate of new cases roughly followed Utah State University’s fall and winter breaks, but Harrison said the health department has been very happy with the school’s efforts to fight the pandemic, and the improvement can’t all be attributed to fewer students in the valley.
“That’s not entirely driving the reduction in cases in Cache County, because we’ve seen a reduction in cases in every county across Utah,” Harrison said. “But it’s certainly another factor that’s influenced the steeper decline in Cache County.”
Because college students often live in communal housing where each member may be coming in contact with a relatively high number of people outside the household, they can be at a higher risk of spreading the virus.
“Now that school’s back in session, there is the risk that we’ll see cases increase due to students living in dorms and interacting in those close quarters,” Harrison said. “But with those students being tested every two weeks by the university, we’ll … be able to catch any new cases that come up and prevent any underlying, hidden spread from asymptomatic cases. So we’re really excited about that development.”