What local health officials had hoped would be only a couple of days of relatively high COVID-19 cases has continued, with 20 or more new infections reported every day since Thursday in the health district.
Twenty new lab-confirmed cases in the Bear River Health District were reported on Monday, following 26 new cases each on Saturday and Sunday. The rolling seven-day average for new cases reached 24.4 on Monday, a mark the district hasn’t exceeded since July 1.
Although the Bear River Health District covers Box Elder and Rich counties, as well, most cases, both recent and total, have been reported in Cache County.
Josh Greer, a spokesperson for the Bear River Health Department, said late last week that officials hoped Thursday and Friday’s relatively high figures for new cases — 34 and 45, respectively — were due to delays in testing because of Labor Day and last week’s severe windstorm. While the three days following didn’t reach Thursday and Friday’s heights, they were still each above the daily average of new cases for August and the first half of September.
Greer said one silver lining is that the district hasn’t seen a sharp increase in cases among minors, which hopefully indicates a low impact from reopening schools.
The full picture is likely more complicated than a lack of clear outbreaks at schools, however. USU biology professor Scott Bernhardt, who has been lending his virology expertise to BRHD, said the uptick in local cases is likely due to the fact that we’ve changed the ways individuals are interacting lately.
“In the last three to four weeks, we’ve changed the way we’re mixing with other individuals, predominately with the back-to-school component with elementary to middle school to high-schoolers,” Bernhardt said. “And then shortly after that, we had a major influx of college-aged students. And so with that mixing, it’s almost predictable that you would see potential for additional cases.”
While young people are generally not at high risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms, individuals may be more vulnerable to the disease if they have comorbidities, Bernhardt said, such as diabetes, obesity, asthma or auto-immune disorders. And even if they’re not falling ill, students may still be spreading the virus asymptomatically. It can be difficult for epidemiologists to track such spread, however, according to Bernhardt.
“Could we possibly have transmission that’s taking place among our 18 and under population? The answer is yeah,” Bernhardt said. “The challenge is how do we quantify that if they’re not showing symptoms?”
Bernhardt said he generally isn’t too worried about students, themselves.
“That’s what I tell my students all the time, in my public health classes that I have, is that I don’t worry about my students,” Bernhardt said. “I worry about their parents. I worry about their grandparents. I worry about the health of those challenging populations.”
Despite schools reopening and the way that has changed the way we interact with others, Bernhardt said, people still need to be vigilant.
“We have the ability to still limit spread and reduce transmission, reduce the number of cases,” Bernhardt said “We just need to be diligent, we just need to be careful.”
That doesn’t mean he’s telling people stop socializing entirely, Bernhardt said, but he stresses the use of face coverings, hand-washing and being aware of symptoms one may be experiencing.
While Cache County has seen a recent increase in daily reported cases, Utah Epidemiologist Angela Dunn stated Monday that the state’s upward-trending numbers are being driven, “in large part, by an increase in cases among college-aged young adults in Utah County.”
“Since last Friday, 39% of all new cases have come from Utah County, this despite the fact that Utah County’s population represents just 20% of the state’s population,” Dunn states in a media release. “Most of these cases are among 14-24 year-olds, and the majority of those are among college-aged young adults.”
Colleges across the state and in Utah County have implemented “solid prevention measures on their campuses,” Dunn states, but those schools “need help from their students to act responsibly while off campus.”