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Food pantry struggling to keep doors open

The Tremonton Community Food Pantry has long been an important resource for people looking for a little help to make ends meet.

Now, the pantry itself is in need of a lifeline.

As people hunker down and focus on making sure their own households are taken care of during the COVID-19 outbreak, individual donations to the food pantry have all but dried up. Grocery stores, facing a surge in consumer demand, have also scaled back their donations.

Combine that with the postponement of the two main food drives it relies on for its annual stockpile, and the facility is officially in crisis mode.

“I’ve been here almost 15 years, and this is the first time I’ve been really, really worried about running out of food and having to lock the doors,” Pantry Director Cathy Newman said. “It’s a real concern at this point.”

A truck from the Utah Food Bank typically makes deliveries to the pantry twice a month, but Newman said she canceled a delivery in early March in anticipation of receiving a large amount of food from a food drive that has become the pantry's biggest source of inventory.

The Feed Utah Food Drive is a collaboration between the Boy Scouts of America, Associated Food Stores, Utah National Guard, JustServe, UPS and the Utah Trucking Association. Newman said the Tremonton pantry typically relies on that event for about nine months’ worth of supplies. The drive brought 31,000 pounds of food to the pantry last year, but due to social distancing and other precautionary guidelines, the effort has been postponed indefinitely this time around.

“I’m sure their donations are way down, too,” she said.

Also on hold is the annual U.S. Postal Service food drive, which usually happens in May.

“Those are the only two we have,” Newman said. “We’re gonna be hurting.”

She said the Feed Utah Food Drive will still happen whenever it becomes safe to do so, but “it’s just a matter of when.”

In the meantime, the local pantry is having to severely limit the amount of food and supplies it can offer those who come in during the six hours per week when it is open to the public (3-6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday).

“I’ve just had to cut the numbers way, way back,” Newman said. “The families that do come in don’t get as much as they normally would. We’re just trying to spread it out as much as we can.”

She doesn’t blame local residents for cutting back or eliminating their donations to the pantry.

“It’s understandable,” she said. “People want to have enough food for their families.”

She said she’s most concerned for the older residents on fixed incomes who have come to rely on the facility.

“Some of them just live on Social Security,” she said. “They don’t have a pension or retirement, so they really depend on us to help them.”

If things get any tighter, she said the pantry might have to fall back to where it is only serving people who are 70 years and above.

Newman said anything that people can spare is welcome. She said canned foods are typically still useful for up to three or four years beyond their “best-by” date, and even bottled items like ketchup are good for a year or two past the date.

She points out that the Tremonton pantry was originally set up as an emergency food pantry, so with the COVID-19 outbreak, “this is a perfect example of why we’re here.”

Meanwhile, the pantry has some food left, and will remain open as long as it can do some good, Newman said.

“I figure we can stay open as long as we’ve got food,” she said. “Hopefully this will calm down and people will start donating again.”

Fighting through the curve

As Utah braces for an anticipated spike in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks, officials at Intermountain Bear River Valley Hospital in Tremonton say the facility is well prepared to assist in any way it can.

Brandon Vonk, the hospital’s administrator, said that as of Monday, nearly 300 people had been tested for the illness caused by the new coronavirus through the facility’s drive-through testing program at the Bear River Clinic. Of those, eight tests have come back positive for COVID-19.

“Those aren’t bad numbers compared to places like New York or Seattle,” Vonk said. “I’m extremely pleased with the process we have set up in order to screen those people in our community who may feel like they have the virus. It’s nice that we can offer this service without them having to drive into a larger city.”

The hospital started doing drive-through testing about three weeks ago, and Vonk said the process has improved to where results are coming back more quickly, due mainly to improvements on the laboratory side of things. While it was taking about three days for test results to come back at the start, he said results are now coming back within 24 hours.

Now, the federal government is working on a test that can produce results within a few minutes, which Vonk said would be “a game changer.

“To have point-of-care test results, that would really help to curb the infection and the transmission rate, because people will know immediately if they have it and can place themselves in isolation,” he said.

Getting faster results is also important not just to help slow the spread of the virus, but for the peace of mind of those getting tested, he added.

“To not be sure if you have it or not can be really stressful when you’re worrying about potentially passing it on to family members,” he said.

Of those who have tested positive through the hospital’s drive-through service, he said those cases haven’t yet been severe enough that they needed to be admitted.

“Their symptoms have been shortness of breath, some nausea and diarrhea, but have not been to the point where they would need respiratory intervention,” he said. “They’ve been asked to self quarantine, and we are following up with them to make sure they aren’t getting worse.”

While there have been several cases at the hospital of “patients under investigation” — those who present with symptoms similar to those of people with COVID-19, testing of those have so far come back negative for the virus.

As medical facilities around the world are struggling to come up with enough personal protective equipment, respirators and other equipment needed in the fight against the outbreak, Vonk said Bear River Valley Hospital is, for the most part, well equipped to handle whatever comes its way.

“When it comes to masks and face shields, we have plenty of that and feel confident that we have enough to ride through the curve,” he said. “I’m more concerned about having enough oxygen on hand for those who do have respiratory issues.”

Since the hospital isn’t set up to provide critical care, he said the focus is on making sure patients have the medications they need, whether they stay in the hospital or need to be transferred to another facility that is better equipped to handle their needs.

Vonk said the willingness of local residents to take precautions has been crucial as the hospital continues to do whatever it can to help counter the outbreak.

“I’ve noticed folks keeping their distance, and more people wearing masks,” he said. “I’m grateful that they have been sensitive, not only to the general population but also to our health care providers, so that the risks to them have been minimized.”

He’s also been humbled by the support of local businesses toward employees at the hospital. The local Sign Gypsies franchise recently put up a message at the hospital proclaiming that “Heroes Work Here,” and last week, Little Caesar’s Pizza and Members First Credit Union delivered meals to the hospital to help fuel the workers who are battling the outbreak.

“Our caregivers feel so supported by our awesome community,” he said. “We cannot thank them enough for their love.”

Getting tested for COVID-19

Laboratory testing capabilities for COVID-19 have increased dramatically since the beginning of the pandemic. Currently, anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, cough, and shortness of breath and who do not have some other clinical diagnosis (such as influenza) can be tested for COVID-19.

This doesn’t mean everyone needs to be tested, though. The vast majority of people who become sick with COVID-19 will recover on their own at home without needing any medical attention. If you are sick, you should isolate yourself at home to avoid spreading your illness to others.

If your symptoms are mild to moderate, call your doctor, or use your doctor’s online telehealth program so they can determine if you need to be tested and where you should be tested.

If you are having difficulty breathing, you should seek immediate medical care, or dial 9-1-1.

Before visiting one of our testing locations, please call the COVID-19 Hotline at 844-442-5224. Calling ahead allows a medical professional to assess your symptoms over the phone and determine if you should be tested for COVID-19. To test whether or not you have COVID-19, a sample will be taken by swabbing deep inside your nose or throat, which can be uncomfortable or even painful. These samples are tested at an offsite location, and results may take several days to process before you can learn of your results.

Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health are offering COVID-19 testing at drive-through locations throughout the state. For more information on how to access testing at those sites click on the links below.

Intermountain Healthcare: https://intermountainhealthcare.org/covid19-coronavirus/get-testing/

University of Utah Health: https://healthcare.utah.edu/coronavirus/State of Utah general coronavirus information: https://coronavirus.utah.gov

LDS Church holds conference without crowds, choir

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sat 6 feet apart inside an empty room last weekend as the faith carried out its signature conference by adhering to social distancing guidelines that offered a stark reminder of how the global coronavirus pandemic is affecting religious practices.

Their livestreamed speeches didn’t dwell heavily on the pandemic as they instead stuck to plans made last year to make the conference a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of events that led to the creation of the church by founder Joseph Smith. Church President Russell M. Nelson unveiled a new church logo that continued his push to rebrand how the faith is known and recognized around the world. The new symbol features a drawing of Thorvaldsen’s marble Christus statue under an arch and on top of the church name with the words “Jesus Christ” larger than the rest.

Nelson, who took the helm in 2018, has made a concerted effort to get the world to use the full church name rather than shorthand monikers such as “Mormon church” and “LDS church” that previous presidents embraced and promoted. He has renamed the choir and changed names of websites and social media accounts to show he’s serious.

“When we remove the Lord’s name from the name of his church, we inadvertently remove him as the central focus of our worship and our lives,” said Nelson, explaining the logo.

The conference was the faith’s first without a crowd in attendance since World War II, when wartime travel restrictions were in place.

Church leaders gave their speeches from inside a small auditorium in Salt Lake City with fewer than 10 people in the room. Normally, top leaders sit side-by-side on stage with the religion’s well-known choir behind them and about 20,000 people attending each of the five sessions over two days in a cavernous conference center. There was no choir last weekend.

Nelson acknowledged the unusual circumstances and the impact COVID-19 is having on the world during his opening speech. In his second speech that capped off the night session, he called for church members to fast and pray on April 10, or Good Friday, so that pandemic can be controlled and the economy strengthened.

Like other religions, the pandemic has brought regular worship practices to a halt. The faith has closed its temples and churches and brought home thousands of missionaries.

Nelson said the pandemic is one of life’s trials along with accidents, natural disasters and unexpected personal heartaches.

“How can we endure such trials? The Lord has told us that ‘if ye are prepared ye shall not fear,’ ” Nelson said. “Of course, we can store our own reserves of food, water, and savings. But equally crucial is our need to fill our personal spiritual storehouses with faith, truth and testimony.”

New church figures unveiled Saturday show membership grew to nearly 16.6 million worldwide in 2019, a 1.5% increase from 2018 and the first time the annual rate of membership growth increased since 2012.