In light of COVID-19 case counts that continue to break records, the local health department is concerned about trends in Cache County and how they’re affected by events not following precautions.
“The health department is extremely concerned about the rapid increase and spread of COVID-19 in our community,” according to a press release sent out by BRHD spokesman Josh Greer on Thursday. “Our growing number of infected individuals is placing an undue burden on our hospitals and healthcare system.”
On Wednesday, there were 159 new cases in the district — 117 of them in Cache County — and on Thursday, there were 109 in the district. Friday set a new second-highest count of 130 cases — 90 of which were in Cache. Those are new records, not counting two days of about 200 cases each reported in connection with a testing clinic at an outbreak at a meatpacking plant in June. Cache County’s two-week total is up to 863 new cases.
Utah is setting records, as well, coming three cases shy of 3,000 new positive tests reported Friday.
The statement from Bear River Health Department “plead(s) with event planners and venue organizers to ensure requirements from the state’s public health order are followed and not dismissed once the event begins” in order to prevent overwhelming the hospitals, thus placing both COVID and non-COVID patients at higher risk of death.
“Definitely, we had some events going on that did not meet the guidelines, even after they said they would,” Greer told The Herald Journal. “So it’s kind of frustrating, and certainly with our numbers being as high as they are, it’s just more opportunity to spread the virus faster and to more people.”
The Utah Department of Health developed an Event Management Template for organizers to fill out and prepare for how to enforce virus mitigation tactics such as mask-wearing, sanitation stations and physical distancing between household groups.
“Events should only be held if masks are worn, physical distancing between household groups is maintained, and the Event Management Template (provided by the state is completed and followed,” the release read. “If these items cannot be followed, the event should not take place.”
While organizers are “required” to fill out the template under the current public health order, there is no system in place in the Bear River area to enforce the requirement.
“The health department is actually not required to approve or deny, and we don’t approve or deny, any of these events,” Greer told The Herald Journal. “They’re required to have that template as part of the governor’s transmission index requirements, as part of the public health order. But yeah, they’re not required to turn it in.”
For example, the health department was not aware of the “Catastrophe 7” Halloween party held at Castle Manor on Friday until it had received multiple calls and inquiries, and therefore BRHD had not checked to see if the event had planned for virus-mitigation contingencies and enforcement.
At that point, Grant Koford, the environmental health director at Bear River Health Department, reached out to event organizer Dane Cooper, who assured officials the event would fit under the guidelines.
“They sent me the plan eventually, and everything in the plan was great,” Koford said. “He told me on the phone they were going to double security to ensure mask-wearing and social distancing, and I said ‘OK, that’s exactly what needs to happen.’ … What happened was nothing like in the plan.”
Koford, Greer and BRHD Executive Director Lloyd Berentzen all received videos allegedly taken at the event on Friday and complaints saying none of the guidelines were followed. Cooper denied the allegations, though he would not say how many tickets had been sold or how many people attended the event.
“Even though it was October, and it was a risk for us, we spread out the whole event,” Cooper said. “The majority of the event was outside and spread out, with the health department helping us on our side.”
In fact, Koford and Greer did not agree that they were on board and said they had concerns all along.
Videos and photos shared on Instagram and TikTok show bodies crowded together. There was still a stage inside, and crowds of young people packed into the wedding chapel at Castle Manor with no distancing. Due to the quality of the video, it’s difficult to determine how many of the attendees were wearing masks.
Cooper, who was traveling to his home in California on Thursday, has not returned requests for comment on the videos. Castle Manor’s office manager, Adrianne Guymon, also declined comment on how the venue was handling events during the pandemic.
Due to the health department’s lack of policy or training in place for enforcement of COVID-19 guidelines, no one from BRHD was at the event to ensure the plan was followed, according to Greer.
“Our staff is pretty thin,” he said. “We’re pretty tied up in disease investigation, and then realistically, we are not trained or equipped to deal with some of these kinds of enforcement issues. I mean, we can’t send our staff into a big party of thousands of people that have no intention of following these guidelines and expect our one or two people to be able to do anything about it.”
Greer said the team of COVID-19 tracers had not found a link between the Catastrophe event and other large Halloween parties that took place in the area and the steady spike in cases this week, though he said symptoms can take between two to 14 days — covering anytime from Monday through Nov. 13.
It’s the same at Utah State University, according to Amanda DeRito.
“We haven’t heard of any students who said, ‘I got sick and this is where I got it,’” said the director of Crisis Communication and Issues Management, “but we are seeing an uptick in cases, and there were several large events and parties last weekend.”
The party was also advertised to high schoolers, but according to Cache County School District’s spokesperson, Tim Smith, there have been decreasing cases at local high schools in the last two weeks.
DeRito added that the majority of cases start showing symptoms after five to seven days, so if an attendant contracted the virus, they’d likely start showing symptoms about now. It’s similar in Logan City School District, according to Communication Director Shana Longhurst.
“We probably wouldn’t hear anything about (new cases from similar events) until next week,” she said. “Large events are always a concern for the district, whether it’s well-intentioned parents hosting dances or large parties and events where masks and distancing can’t be enforced.”
Longhurst said there were “several, but not a significant amount” of new cases following unsanctioned Homecoming events were held in the area, but added, “It was reported to us many people stayed home because they didn’t feel good, which we appreciate, but we don’t know if they got tested.”
County Executive Craig Buttars said Cache officials are worried about events, but again, enforcement is a challenge.
“We are concerned about the possibilities of future large gatherings happening and want to make sure we’re doing all we can, short of going in and shutting them down,” Buttars said. “It’s a statewide mandate on social gatherings, so we’ve even talked about the state coming in, sending in state troopers and shutting it down, since it is a state-ordered mandate.”
Buttars had previously told The Herald Journal the move to more local control was wise, but it would be “pretty tough” to enforce.
“I will probably consult with the health department and if they have serious concerns about maybe the venue or the number of people expected and those types of things, then I may step in or, you know, request help from the health department,” he said on Oct. 14.
He said as long as an event has a permit and has filled out the template, the county has no authority to keep them from moving forward.
According to Koford, the lack of local oversight may change.
“We’re looking into that right now, legally, but I don’t know where that’s at,” he said. “It’s in the process of being reviewed to see what we can and can’t do. Right now, they’re guidelines. We try to ensure they’ve got it at least planned the way it should be, then it’s the event organizers’ job to carry out that plan.”
In his weekly press briefing on Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert said the rise in cases is “unfortunately … not surprising.”
“And if projections that we have coming out of the Department of Health are correct, we’re going to see higher numbers in the upcoming days and weeks,” he said. “We’ll continue to see this dramatic increase unless we modify and change our behavior.”
On Oct. 24, Utah Department of Health Spokesperson Tom Hudachko told The Herald Journal there were “no plans at the state level to provide this type of enforcement,” though in the governor’s address, Herbert said to expect an announcement possibly refining the guidelines early next week.