Continuing a recent spike, the Bear River Health District reported 68 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, while Utah broke its daily record with quadruple digits.
Friday’s reported increase is BRHD’s fourth-largest to date in the pandemic. The two largest daily increases were two days at the beginning of June with nearly 200 cases each — most of them tied to a testing clinic at a meatpacking plant in Hyrum. The third-highest count was June 19, with 76.
The rolling seven-day average for new daily cases reached 34 on Friday, a level the district hasn’t seen since June. Most of Friday’s new cases are from Cache County, with the rest reported in Box Elder County — figures that fit with the pandemic’s general trend for the three-county health district, where 83% of cases are in Cache County. Rich County has detected 14 cases total.
Most of the recently detected COVID-19 cases have been among college-aged patients, according to Lloyd Berentzen, Bear River Health Department executive director in a statement released Thursday.
“We knew there would be a risk of increased COVID cases with the return of the academic year,” Berentzen stated. “Now that we see this happening, we continue to ask for your help with our prevention efforts. Let’s be wise and know that others depend on the decisions we make.”
Utah State University sent an emergency message to students Friday afternoon, advising them to take extra precautions in their weekend plans.
“In general, the more people you interact with, the longer the interaction, and the closer you are, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread,” states Ellis Bruch, director of emergency management with USU Public Safety.
“Remember, some people who have COVID-19 don’t have symptoms, but still may be infectious. These people may spread the virus to friends, coworkers, family members, and others who are at a higher risk for complications.”
Statewide, a spike of coronavirus cases that began after schools and colleges resumed classes reached a new peak Friday and led Gov. Gary Herbert to say again that he’s considering new measures to combat the spread of the virus.
Herbert said he will meet with his command team on Monday after what he described as an “alarming” spike that makes him question if previous warnings and public education are enough.
He said one day earlier he’s considering a state mask mandate — a move he’s stopped short of making despite repeated pleas for residents to use face coverings when social distancing isn’t possible. He has instead allowed counties to decide if they needed bans.
The 1,117 cases reported Friday in Utah surpassed the previous record of about 875 hit twice in July, according to state data.
That tally raised the state’s rolling average number of daily new coronavirus cases to 726, more than double 381 just one week ago. The state’s positive rate hit 12.5% Friday, up from 8.2% one month ago.
“For months, we have warned people that they need to stay home if they are sick, and they need to stay away from others if they have tested positive for COVID-19,” Herbert said. “They need to wear a mask around others, even when they are not sick. We all need to consider the common public good when making daily decisions, and frankly, there is no room for lackadaisical behavior.”
The new virus case surge is likely driven by high school and colleges resuming in-person learning and could lead to an increase in hospitalizations for older people over the next few weeks, said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases specialist at the Intermountain Healthcare hospital network based in Salt Lake City, earlier this week.
Utah’s public schools opened last month with a combination of in-person and online learning, and some school districts let parents choose between the two options.
The Utah Education Association called on Gov. Herbert to “increase state oversight and compliance measures to protect the health and safety of public school students, educators and school staff” in a letter Friday.
UEA states that many educators agreed to return to classrooms believing that state health department guidelines would be followed, but “school districts are electing to ignore” those recommendations. As a result, many teachers have told the group that “they feel helpless, disrespected and unsafe.”
The group is calling on the governor to set stronger, more enforceable requirements for local school boards based on guidance from health professionals.
Utah County is fueling the spike, with the county accounting for about 40% of the state’s new cases this week even though its population makes up just 20% of the state’s 3.2 million residents.
The county’s rate of about 76 cases per 100,000 people is more than double any other county. The rate in the state’s most populous county of Salt Lake County was 34 cases per 100,000 people.
Many of the new cases are being driven by college students who attend Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University, state health officials say. BYU students have received criticism for large off-campus gatherings, and state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said this week that while college officials have implemented solid preventative measures for campus, “they need help from their students to act responsibly while off campus.”
Elected officials and health leaders in Utah County, which has not put in place a face covering mandate outside of the city of Provo, are discussing ways to stop the spike, Herbert said.
No new deaths were reported Friday, leaving the state’s total at 437 since the pandemic began.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.