Peak of new cases in Summit County could come in two weeks, but health officials want better data
Summit County’s highest-ranking public health official says that models indicate the peak of new local cases of COVID-19 will likely hit in about two weeks and that the growth in the number of cases in Summit County, while steady, appears to be linear rather than exponential.
But Health Director Rich Bullough stressed that much remains unknown and that there is not enough testing to yield the kind of comprehensive data that is crucial for health officials seeking to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“We don’t have a real sense, I don’t believe, of really how widespread this is in the community,” Bullough said. “Until we can begin to sample to a level where we see a broader, more representative sample of our community, then I think we’re still going to be asking questions of the data.”
Bullough’s three public health orders have effectively shuttered the local economy in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly pandemic. Officials have said the timeline for transitioning back into a functioning economy by loosening mandated restrictions will be determined largely by how the outbreak progresses locally.
Bullough said he is hopeful the peak of the number of daily new cases will hit in about two weeks, and noted the total number of cases might continue to increase for a year or more even as the rate of spread slows.
As of Friday, there were 222 confirmed cases among Summit County residents, according to the Utah Department of Health, a number that no longer includes the number of infected visitors to the county. Statewide, seven people have died, while 1,246 have tested positive for COVID-19. A dozen people with the disease in Summit County had been hospitalized, up from 11 Thursday.
State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn said earlier in the week that there was some evidence the disease’s growth in Utah may be slowing, but Bullough said the lack of sufficient data in Summit County and a small sample size mean it isn’t clear whether the curve is flattening in the county.
“We have enough information to be hopeful. What we’re seeing is not discouraging, but we’re not to the point of being able to say, ‘OK, what we’re doing is really having a big impact in Summit County,’” Bullough said. “But we have every reason to believe it is. Social distancing works, stay-at-home orders work. And I think as we’ve looked around — people are taking this to heart.”
Health Director Rich Bullough said the growth in cases of COVID-19 in Summit County appears to be linear and not exponential, good news as the county braces for a peak that may still be two weeks away.
Bullough said it remains critical for people to take social distancing and hygiene measures seriously to slow the spread of the pandemic.
“I think we’re at a time of transition right now — people get bored,” Bullough said. “Now is the time I think we all need to remind ourselves that we need to hunker down, we can’t ease up. This is a critical time in our curve, it’s a critical time in trying to flatten that curve.”
Bullough reiterated the importance of social distancing — staying at least 6 feet away from others when out in public — and washing hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds.
He also advised people to limit contact with anyone not in their household.
“We encourage people (to) keep it within your family,” Bullough said. “Limit exposure severely to new people, people that you don’t know where they’ve been.”
He acknowledged that the restrictions on gatherings have upended the ways people socialize, and encouraged people to find a way to persevere.
“Also, though, live your life,” Bullough said. “We’re going into a stretch of beautiful weather — get outside, go on a walk. Just do it in a smart way.”
Bullough noted that the picture will continue to come into focus as increased testing offers more data. Between 20% and 30% of the tests in Summit County have come back positive for COVID-19, Bullough said, compared to a rate closer to 5% statewide. That indicates that only the sickest are being tested, Bullough said, and that the current information doesn’t accurately represent the disease’s progression through the community. A swing in new cases from nine on Tuesday to 23 on Thursday could indicate increased spread or something less sinister, Bullough said, like the sudden clearing of a backlog at a lab.
The first order curtailing businesses came in mid-March, as the first case of community spread hit the county. The latest, issued March 25, was a joint public health order mandating residents stay at home unless it is essential to venture out. It was also signed by the Summit County Council and county manager and endorsed by the mayors in Summit County’s six municipalities, as well as the Board of Health.
Questions remain about how long the orders will need to be in place and, consequently, how long the local economy will continue to lie dormant.
County Manager Tom Fisher has indicated that evaluating the public health orders is squarely a Health Department responsibility. Bullough said his staff is in the process of determining the criteria to evaluate how and when to transition from the more urgent phase of the outbreak response to a more stable one for both residents and businesses.
“We can’t be in this mode — this urgent mode we’re in right now — forever, and we have to identify how it is and what it is that allows us to transition out,” he said. “As we begin to see numbers ease, what is a logical way to allow businesses to begin to re-engage communities?”
The public health orders were set to be reevaluated within a month of their effective dates, and officials have said they would start reviewing most within two weeks. The first public health order was effective March 12 but was re-evaluated within days and was quickly clarified in response to questions from businesses and community members, Bullough said.
The stay-at-home order arose out of revisions to the first two public health orders and from discussions involving high-level Health Department officials, the county manager, the deputy county manager, the local emergency managers and attorneys, Bullough said. The conversation was then broadened to include elected officials from the county, Park City and the five other municipalities, as well as the Board of Health, Bullough said.
In weighing potential adjustments of the stay-at-home order, Bullough said the Health Department is considering factors like the rate at which the virus is spreading and the capacity of local health care systems.
He said the team considering the indicators includes clinical experts, a communicable and infectious disease expert and those with economic expertise.
“Our obligation here is to protect our health system and our resources for residents,” Bullough said. “None of us have done this before and … when I say none of us, I mean literally none of us in public health or in the business sector has dealt with a global pandemic of this scale. And so we’re learning along the way.”
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