In a press conference Tuesday, Gov. Gary Herbert announced a retirement of the “Utah Leads Together” color-coded planning system in exchange for a COVID-19 transmission tracking system based on three criteria: case rates, positivity rates and ICU statewide capacity.
“I think moving away from the color-coded guidelines, it takes more of the politics out of it,” said Cache County Executive Craig Buttars.
The decision transitioned from the governor’s state of emergency to a public health emergency ordinance, placing enforcement in the hands of both the state and local health departments, along with county executives.
“I think it’s wise to move to more local control,” Buttars said, “because the people on the local level should have a good idea for what the situations are.”
Due to the recent increases in Cache County, the area is listed under “High Transmission risk” for at least the next two weeks, meaning there is a state-issued mask requirement and limitations on “casual” social gatherings. The guidelines limit such gatherings — which don’t include “formal religious services or events with organizational oversight” — to 10 people or fewer.
However, as with the past mandates, these regulations will be “difficult to enforce from the local health department standpoint,” said Josh Greer, Bear River Health Department’s spokesperson.
“We absolutely feel that our biggest bang for our buck is really helping people understand the things they can do and then empowering them to make these choices,” Greer said.
He added the main components of the state’s guidance system are the same mitigation tactics BRHD has been promoting throughout the pandemic: mask wearing, proper hygiene and hand washing, avoiding large gatherings, staying home when sick and maintaining a physical distance of 6 feet — especially when not wearing a mask.
“We’re certainly not going to go out and look for gatherings that are a little too big, or, you know, stop somebody on the street because they’re not wearing that mask,” Greer said. “That’s just not the way we want to handle this.”
Buttars had a similar view and said he plans to grant exemptions for major life events, particularly those that have been “months or even years” into planning.
“That’s a difficult thing that I have,” he said, “like quinceaneras, maybe baptisms, maybe weddings, things like that, that are only going to happen once in an individual’s life, and then you impact them by canceling their celebration. I don’t see the logic behind that when we’re allowing other social gatherings like sporting events.”
Cache County will remain in the high risk level until at least Oct. 29, as the state will evaluate the county’s case counts and update the transmission risk each Thursday, but will only lower the risk level after a two-week period. Buttars expects the risk in Cache won’t be lowered for at least month.
Utah, as a whole, has averaged more than 1,000 new cases a day since Oct. 4.
Cache County’s transmission index is the fifth-highest in the state, exceeded only by Utah, Salt Lake, Garfield and Juab counties. After Cache, only Wasatch is among the six counties in the “high” level of the transmission index.
Counties will fall into the high transmission category if two or more of these criteria are met: A seven-day average test positivity rate of 13% or more; a 14-day case rate of 325 or more per 100,000 people; and a statewide intensive care utilization of 72% or higher, with at least 15% of total beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
In announcing the program Tuesday, Herbert noted Utah is in the midst of one of worst outbreaks in the country “and this is unacceptable.”
Data will be analyzed weekly, and counties will be placed into a transmission level depending solely on what their numbers show, according to a program alert posted Tuesday on coronavirus.utah.gov. Changes from a lower level to a higher level may occur weekly. Changes from a higher level to a lower level may occur every 14 days at minimum, when thresholds are met.
“The data helps us understand the real risk of transmission in our communities. Important health behaviors, based on epidemiology and medical science, are outlined at each level to protect yourself, your family, and your community from COVID-19,” the alert states.
The mask requirement covers all indoor settings and outdoors when physical distancing is not feasible. For businesses, this includes both employees and patrons.
There has already been some confusion expressed by the public over what constitutes a “casual gathering.”
According to the website, the 10-person restriction applies to social get-togethers such as barbecues, baby showers, potlucks and graduation parties, but it does not apply to “formal” events such as religious services or sporting events with “organizational oversight.”
The Bear River Health District reported 107 new lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the largest increase outside of two days of nearly 200 new cases tied to a meatpacking plant outbreak in June. In keeping with the general trend, Cache County reported the most cases in the three-county district Wednesday, while Box Elder County reported 24 and Rich reported zero. There are an estimated 1,016 active cases in the district, which includes 818 in Cache and 195 in Box Elder.
Trailing indicators — figures like hospitalizations and deaths that by nature lag behind the rate of new infections — are increasing in Cache County, where nine people were hospitalized with the virus as of Wednesday. The number of people who list their permanent residences in Cache Valley who have died after contracting COVID-19 increased from six to eight over the past week. Both recently reported deaths were elderly individuals.
As of Tuesday, an average of about 17% of COVID-19 tests performed in the county have come back positive over the past week, according to the state. About 70% of Utah’s hospital ICU beds were in use as of Tuesday, with about 16% of ICU beds in use by COVID-19 patients.
More information on the new changes can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-health-guidance-levels.
Herald Journal writers Charles McCollum and Steve Kent contributed to this report.