Summit County health officials adapt to governor’s new COVID order
In an emergency declaration Sunday night, Gov. Gary Herbert issued a statewide mask mandate and called for sweeping COVID-19 testing initiatives, the strongest moves from his office to date to contain the pandemic as thousands of new cases are reported daily.
In Summit County, where a mask mandate has been in place since June, the larger change is the governor’s de facto two-week ban on socializing with people from different households, according to the county’s deputy health director, Phil Bondurant.
“A lot of individuals are trying to understand why we can have an event that is managed by a responsible party … (but) we’re telling folks you can’t gather for a birthday party, you can’t gather for a wedding — unless there’s a wedding planner involved,” Bondurant said.
The governor’s directive urges people not to socialize with those outside of their household group in a private setting like a dinner party. Restaurants and bars remain open, though they cannot serve alcohol after 10 p.m.
Other protocols include weekly COVID-19 testing for students at higher education institutions and curtailing extracurricular activities at public schools. The orders allow for intercollegiate competitions and high school sports playoffs to continue.
The order is in effect until Nov. 23, though the statewide mask mandate will remain in place indefinitely. Bondurant said winter sports tryouts at local schools have been postponed and it is unclear whether extracurricular activities can resume after Nov. 23 with the addition of regular testing.
Bondurant said the data shows COVID-19 is spreading in casual small gatherings in homes between close friends and family members rather than in public businesses, where people are more apt to follow public health guidelines to maintain social distance, wear masks and wash their hands frequently.
He said people are used to relaxing their COVID safety habits around people they are close with, and that has been shown to be the time when the virus spreads the most.
“The same behaviors at work, at the store, at school — (we) need to carry those behaviors over to the ‘after-5-o’clock-life,’” Bondurant said. “People need to keep the same mentality in their personal lives, as well.”
Bondurant explained the governor’s goal was to tamp down new cases of the disease in the next two weeks to preserve and create capacity in the state’s health care systems.
He said the high utilization of the state’s intensive care units continues to be a chief concern.
On Monday, high-ranking officials with the state’s four largest health care systems joined a briefing to reiterate that capacity in hospitals is dwindling and that the state finds itself in a critical position in its fight against the pandemic.
“I would submit that we’re at our tipping point today,” Intermountain Healthcare Chief Physician Executive Mark Briesacher said.
Greg Bell, the president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association, indicated that hospitals are fortunate to have not been overrun already, saying that each time a particular hospital comes close to becoming overwhelmed, the need has temporarily subsided.
The chief medical officer of University of Utah Health asked Utahns to wear masks anytime they’re around people who don’t live under their roof, even among family members and friends during the holiday season.
The warnings from health care professionals have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks as case counts skyrocket statewide, a trend matched in Summit County as well. Bell said the 16 Utah hospitals designated to receive the patients who are most seriously ill with COVID-19 are filling up, even as hospitalizations lag weeks behind new case diagnoses.
The virus continues to spread most rapidly among younger people, and the delay in new hospitalizations is extended while the disease makes its way from healthy young people to more vulnerable populations.
Bondurant said that testing is key to fighting the pandemic, second only behind following the masking and distancing guidelines.
Herbert announced a new testing push in his statement Sunday night, but Summit County so far has not received guidance about how that would be administered.
The Summit County Health Department is relatively small compared to those in Utah or Salt Lake counties, Bondurant said. It has relied on partners in the health care industry to administer tests — including paying workers to staff the site and other associated costs. Intermountain Healthcare, which owns Park City hospital, has been chief among those partners.
But it is unclear who will be responsible to implement the new expanded testing regiment. Herbert indicated that tests would soon be coming to workers under age 35 as well as to high school teachers, students participating in extracurricular activities and others.
There are several potential limiting factors in expanding testing, with the tests themselves only one component. Herbert indicated that a recent conversation with members of the Trump administration included a guarantee to supply more tests.
People will need to be certified to physically administer the tests, and the data from those tests will need to be reported to state officials so they can track positive cases and meaningfully apply the data.
Contact tracing work would also need to expand, and state officials have indicated the Utah National Guard might play a role in supporting testing expansion.
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The Summit County unemployment rate dropped slightly in October, the state Department of Workforce Services reported.