New developments! Utah will now survey those who enter our state borders via car or airplane to see if they have tested positive for COVID-19 or if they have symptoms of the virus. In addition, there are some movie-worthy stories of what the state is doing to find swabs needed to test for the virus. And, yes, there are signs that we MAY be flattening the curve. But don’t order the noisemakers quite yet. This pandemic is still teaching us new things every day. But one lesson is common: Utah believes we can beat this thing — if we do it together. And with distancing. And with masks (speakers at the governor’s press conferences now wear masks to the mic and remove them to speak).
As of Thursday, April 8, Utah has 1,846 cases (that’s 108 more cases in 24 hours — see the photos for the April 7 and April 8 snapshots). The total tests are at 36,116, which is an increase of 1,469 in the previous 24 hours. The total hospitalizations during the outbreak is 158 (many of these are now out of the hospital, but we don’t have exact numbers). Utah has not had a death since last Saturday, so our death count is holding at 13. As we’ve increased testing, our rate of positives is flat at 5 percent — doesn’t seem to change no matter how many people we test. Also, our hospitalization rate is 9 percent of those having coronavirus, which is low compared to other states and nations. Breathe in, breathe out. We’re getting through this. This past week, we’ve seen 60-180 positive tests reported each day. We are doubling our cases every 5ish days — which is not the same as exponential growth that happens when doubling every 1-2 days.
Welcome to Utah, Now Answer Some Questions
In coordination with UDOT and the Salt Lake International Airport, Gov. Herbert issued an ORDER requiring individuals 18 or older who enter Utah as their final destination (not just traveling through) to complete a travel declaration. This begins on Friday as we head into Easter weekend. As cars cross the state line, they will receive a text asking about their travel plans, asking if they have symptoms, if they’ve taken the COVID-19 test, and if so what their results were. The state has selected 9 ports of entry where drivers enter the state. The texts are sent using the federal government’s wireless emergency alert system. At the airport, workers will pass cards to passengers that have QR codes for them to scan and take the survey. In the past, 25,000 passengers landed at the Salt Lake Airport every day — right now it’s a fraction of this number. These surveys won’t stop anyone from coming into the state, but it will give the Utah Department of Health more information about who is here. This is not an effort to penalize or prevent entry. The surveys are voluntary — meaning that police aren’t going to chase down cars that don’t complete the survey. “We are convinced that when people know the right thing to do, they will do the right thing,” Gov. Herbert said. “We will measure compliance and take steps if we need to, but I don’t anticipate that being a problem in Utah.” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said, “Each person who comes here is a new opportunity for the virus to spread, whether they are residents or visitors. Taking these steps brings us greater assurances as a city and as a state.”
Not the Small Airports
UDOT Executive Director Carlos Bracera said Utah has 46 general aviation airports around the state with private aircraft landing, but the numbers don’t merit the effort to track people down at those locations.
This Sounds Like a Movie Plot
The whole world is searching every inch of the globe for the same supplies such as N-95 masks, gowns, swabs, etc. Utah has had three sources of PPE in the past, and two of them were in China. Sigh. On Tuesday, Harmons Grocery Store found they had 15,000 N-95 masks in their warehouse and donated them to the state. Thank you, Harmons! The state has acquired several hundred thousand of the specialty masks, but we need a couple million. Another in-demand item? The swabs needed to administer the test (more sophisticated than a Q-tip). Utah found a potential supplier in China, and one of our state’s entrepreneurs was going to take a chartered plane to China to get it. Heroic! Then China decided not to let the swabs leave the country. Dang. Then a supply of swabs was found in Chicago and put on a truck headed for Utah. The truck got slowed down in the ports of entry at Iowa. The state made plans to fly a plane to Cheyenne to meet the truck, but there were still customs issues to work through. So Wyoming came to the rescue and loaned some of their state’s supplies to us. Finally, the truck with swabs arrived in Utah Wednesday morning and our state employees went to work validating the supplies. Oh, the stories these swabs could tell! The state is now working with Merit Medical and others to manufacture swabs and PPE here in Utah. (Find Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox on Twitter to watch his “bookside chat” where he tells these swab stories.)
Right now we have the capacity to test — and run lab tests — for 4,000+ a day. The state goal is to get to 7,000, but we aren’t currently “living up to our privileges” of running 4,000 tests per day. We’re one of the top 5 states for testing per capita. (You can use your noisemaker for that one.)
Weekends Are Slow
Over the weekends, our testing rates have been dropping to 1,000-2,000 per day (and then this low number of lab results come in about two days later). This isn’t a capacity issue — it’s that people aren’t showing up to get tested. Cox said this the weekends are actually a great time to get tested, and he told a story of someone getting their results within 12 hours (instead of the standard 24-48 hours).
Peak Our Interest
Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, said the highly publicized report out of the University of Washington shows Utah starting to flatten the curve and peaking in COVID-19 cases later this month, while her own internal models show us peaking THIS SUMMER. Sigh. But models are just predictions based on inputs, which means they vary greatly depending on which inputs are chosen. Cox said he is hoping the University of Washington model is correct and that we are flattening the curve and reaching our peak sooner rather than later.
Directive Vs. Order
Dr. Anthony Fauci (national medical leader and often in Trump’s press conferences) last week said that every state should have a Stay At Home Order (Utah is one of 8 states that does not). But on Wednesday morning, Dr. Fauci had a call with Utah’s top leaders and praised them for their approach. Although we don’t have a statewide ORDER, these counties have implemented their own ORDERS on top of the governor’s statewide directive: Salt Lake, Summit, David, Tooele, Wasatch and Weber counties. Cox pointed out that it’s not just the depth of the decision but the timing of the decision that matters, and Utah was the first state to limit gatherings to 100 or less … and one of the very first states to close schools. Utah organized its first task force on March 2nd, chaired by LG Cox. The World Health Organization didn’t declare COVID-19 a pandemic until March 11th.
Social Distancing is Short Term
Cox recognizes that social distancing is not a long-term plan. The reason the state chose social distancing early on is that we didn’t have adequate tests. The tests sent by the CDC in February (and approved by the FDA) were faulty, so we lost time starting over with testing supplies. The “sledgehammer” approach of asking everyone to stay home was the best option. Moving forward, the state is also using a “surgical” approach to find and isolate the virus. This is done by testing and tracing. Utah has identified 1,000 state employees who aren’t as busy doing their current jobs and have now been trained as tracers to reach out to people who have had contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. “Tracing and then isolating those with the virus is the key. We’re hopeful we’re getting much closer to the stabilization part of this pandemic, but we likely won’t have Jazz games until we have a vaccine or other medical interventions,” Cox said. (If you follow him on Twitter, you know his endearing fetish with the Jazz.)
In previous press conferences, Utahns were told there wasn’t a known benefit to wearing a mask because it would not prevent you from contracting the virus. Now they are saying we should be wearing masks in public to prevent us from spreading or contracting the virus.
Over 57,000 people (or 2 percent of the state) have taken the assessment at TestUtah.com. More mobile sites are coming online for those who are identified through the assessment as needing a free COVID-19 test, although the current sites aren’t reaching daily testing capacity. Mark Newman of Nomi Health calls the assessment “a temperature check on the entire state” to help us know what is happening and where. If you haven’t taken the assessment yet, stop here and go to TestUtah.com. (And then come back because there’s more you’re going to want to know.)
The bad news is that Utah-based banks and lending institutions didn’t really start taking applications for the Paycheck Protection Program last Friday when the federal government said they were ready for them. The good news is that the $350 billion that the government has allotted has not disappeared as fast as it was feared. Jeremy Andrus, leader of the Silicon Slopes Economic Committee, said America First Credit Union was the first in Utah to start taking PPP loan applications. Other banks scrambled to follow. Zions Bank, for example, had 17,000 applications submitted in a 24-hour period. On Wednesday, Mitt Romney tweeted that 3,489 Utah employers had received $718 million through the PPP program. Note, this is likely referring to the amount approved for Utah companies — not the amount that has hit their bank accounts. The economic committee of Silicon Slopes is hosting a deep dive each Thursday at 5 p.m. Today’s conversation will be on PPP, and you can find it on Silicon Slopes social media channels.
More than 2,400 respondents to a Silicon Slopes survey revealed some sad news: 65 percent said they are slightly likely or extremely likely to permanently close their doors because of COVID-19.
Emotional Health Relief Hotline
Intermountain has launched the Emotional Health Relief Hotline for caregivers and community members. The number is 833-442-2211.
If you have a few hours, go ahead and google Hydroxychloroquine. Sometimes called the “malaria drug,” hydroxychloroquine is being heralded by some as an answer to COVID-19. Dr. Dunn noted that this drug is known to have side effects in high doses, such as heart problems. More studies are being done. Some reports have said the state or federal authorities have taken control of this substance and kept doctors from prescribing it like they have in the past for those with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, for example. Not true. The drug is still available to be prescribed by doctors for a number of conditions, including COVID-19.
Is It 1918 Again?
We all of a sudden REALY care about the flu pandemic of 1918. And one thing we know is that it came in waves. “There’s a possibility we will see waves of this pandemic, too. There’s a possibility that it’s seasonal and we could have a resurge. We don’t know. It’s essential that we focus on the current increase of cases and work hard to decrease that,” Dr. Dunn said. “We are focused on what’s happening NOW.”
One of the most promising pieces to this pandemic is antibodies. Some people are spending $150 for an antibody test. Dr. Dunn urges caution on these yet-unproven tests. The CDC and Utah’s own ARUP are working on a serology test that will determine immunity and past exposure to the virus. She’s expecting these answers to come in the next days or weeks. Hold on. Stay home, and stay safe.