Summit County officials, echoing state epidemiologist, issue dire warning about the need for drastic action to stem surge
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough issued a dire warning Monday about the statewide spread of COVID-19, sharing information from the state’s top infectious disease official indicating the state may be facing its last chance to change course to prevent mass deaths or a complete economic shutdown.
“We’re at a crossroads and right now the direction we’re going has to change, there’s no other way to say it,” Bullough said at the Board of Health meeting. “I intended this conversation to be a rallying cry — we need to do some things differently.”
Bullough read from a memo sent by State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn that included stark data about the effects of easing the restrictions that were meant to prevent the spread of the disease. Dunn wrote that the state’s contact tracing program and hospital systems will be overrun in a matter of weeks unless the number of daily new cases is more than halved from recent tallies.
Utah set records for new cases on June 18 and 19, counting more than 1,200 new infections over the two days. Dunn said in the memo that the disease’s growth is accelerating and that the surge started May 27, about two weeks after most of the state moved to the yellow, low-risk phase.
She set a target of lowering the rolling seven-day average of new cases to 200 per day, indicating the state’s health care infrastructure could likely handle that load. The latest such average is 468.
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The situation in Summit County, while worsening, is better than many of its neighboring counties and one of the best in the state, Bullough said.
The county logged 15 new cases between June 16 and June 22, but Bullough said the numbers were trending in the wrong direction.
“We are somewhat of an island. We have done well, we knocked this stuff out,” Bullough said. “We need to protect that. What actions can protect that? One of those actions could be mask wearing.”
Summit County officials have had closed-door discussions about mandating mask wearing in public, Bullough said, but no decision had been made.
He indicated the county’s data does not warrant moving back into a more restrictive risk phase, but said there has been a significant upwards trend in new cases that he called concerning.
“Our numbers are not as dire as the rest of the state, but they are increasing,” Bullough said. “I’m concerned about trends. (These are) crude numbers, but when you have seven consecutive days of incidence growth, it’s more than a trend.”
Bullough has said the fate of Summit County is linked with that of the neighboring cities, counties and states from which visitors arrive, and that more action is necessary to cement the hard-won progress the county has made against COVID-19.
Dunn’s memo states there are only four intensive-care unit beds in Summit County, three of which were in use as of June 19. Intermountain Healthcare, which operates Park City Hospital, has said that patients are being transferred to facilities in the Salt Lake Valley to preserve hospital capacity in Summit County. But Dunn’s memo indicates that Salt Lake County is experiencing its own surge in cases, which could have wide-reaching impacts as its health care infrastructure provides critical care capacity for most of Utah. As of June 19, two-thirds of Salt Lake County’s intensive-care unit beds were being used.
Earlier this month, Summit County officials spoke publicly for the first time about what they characterized as the irresponsible speed with which Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration had reopened the state’s economy, a point Bullough said has been borne out by the growth in new cases statewide.
“The data suggest we’ve gone too fast, been too random (in reopening),” Bullough said. “I want to be really clear, not the decision of Summit County or the Summit County Health Department, the decision of our state government. No two ways around that.”
Officials at the time worried that objecting to the state’s reopening strategy might risk the county’s political standing. Political capital might prove crucial in the fall in the event the county requests state permission to tighten restrictions during an expected surge of COVID-19.
Dunn in the memo linked the health of the economy to the health of Utah’s citizens, saying that the goals of reopening businesses and preserving public health are aligned.
But she said that if her suggested measures were deemed unreasonable — measures that include moving the entire state back to the orange risk level if certain targets for new case numbers aren’t hit by July 1 — the state would be making decisions based on the economy rather than public health.
“If above (suggested actions aren’t) reasonable, we need to be clear with public about why decisions are being made lessening restrictions — economic, not health,” Dunn wrote. “Be clear about health risk. Be clear about how these decisions are made and who makes them.”
In light of the changing circumstances highlighted by Dunn’s memo, Bullough said the county’s new response strategy has three parts: communicating to the public the importance of preventive measure like mask wearing and hand washing; building internal capacity for contact tracing; and planning for an upcoming surge, including stockpiling personal protective equipment and preparing for mass vaccinations, work Bullough said is already under way.
Since the early days of the pandemic, when Summit County was the epicenter in Utah, the state has largely taken over the county’s contact tracing program, after the Health Department’s four-person team was quickly overloaded.
Bullough said as the number of cases statewide rises, the state will no longer be able to provide that support and the county is looking to hire more contact tracers.
Dunn indicated that, as the risk phases have progressed through different colors, members of the public have relaxed social distancing measures and have been interacting with more people. She stressed how importantly Utahns seem to view the various risk colors, saying that changing risk phases has changed personal behavior.
“Since going to yellow, we have increased our number of contacts/case from approximately 5 to over 20,” she wrote.
Bullough agreed there was an urgent need to change how the disease is being fought locally and statewide.
“Her message is dire and honest and I think it’s accurate,” Bullough said. “… When you look at those numbers, we’re not even close. I think something drastic needs to occur for us to refocus the efforts of the community.”
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