The Utah commission providing recommendations to Gov. Gary Herbert regarding the state’s response to the pandemic has three key indicators it is following to check for whether the state is at a “adequate level of stability” to warrant moving to lower-risk phases. Two of those indicators show Utah is not at that point, and the state’s epidemiologist said Wednesday, June 3 that she recommends no jurisdiction in Utah move to the lowest risk phase at this time.
“We in public health look at our public health data and make recommendations for restrictions or loosening restrictions to the governor and the commission, and based on the data we have seen in the past week, we don’t recommend any jurisdiction in the state going to green,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, at a Wednesday press conference.
Despite these warnings, the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission unanimously voted Tuesday, June 2 to recommend allowing much of the state to move from the “low risk” phase in which it is currently to the “new normal risk” phase starting Friday, June 5, calling it a “smart green risk phase.”
Beyond two of the commission’s three key indicators — transmission and statewide hospital utilization rates — being outside the commission’s “adequate stability” standard, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also projects that most of the possible outcomes for Utah in the coming weeks will include accelerating COVID-19 death rates as case counts have spiked in recent days.
The first indicator, transmission rate, describes the average number of people who contract COVID-19 from a single other person. According to the commission, the figure must be below 1.0 to meet a level of “adequate level of stability.” According to multiple estimates, including those used by the commission, Utah has for weeks been near but just above that 1.0 threshold.
Statewide, the second indicator, the rate of hospital intensive care unit usage, has also been above the commission’s criteria. According to the commission, the average ICU bed usage over the last 14 days has been, on average, 61%, whereas the stability standard is for it to be below 60% over that same period.
The one indicator that does meet the commission’s standard, community spread, shows that spread of the coronavirus from known contacts has been at 81% for the past two weeks, according to the commission. This is well above the 60% standard the commission set in mid-May and close to the “ideal” level the commission set of 85%.
Other key figures
The number of new COVID-19 cases reported each day in Utah has increased over the past 14 days while, in many other states including neighboring Colorado and Nevada, case rates have either stagnated or decreased during the same period. Others, including Idaho and Arizona, have seen increases.
This number of new daily cases would likely increase over the coming weeks, according to the commission, if the governor enacts the change. The group said the number “has proven to be a poor indicator of health risk for all Utahns,” and thus has not used it as a reopening criterion, but health officials disagree.
In Moab and elsewhere, experts have used new daily cases as a leading indicator — a canary in the coalmine of sorts — of the pandemic’s localized severity and the number of hospitalizations and deaths that could come. Dunn is among those putting stock in the case numbers.
“Hospitalization is a lagging metric, so typically somebody has been ill with COVID-19 about a week to 10 days before they are hospitalized, and we have consistently maintained about an 8% hospitalization rate, so we can expect that this increase in cases will result in an increase of hospitalizations in about a week,” Dunn said. “so it’s really important for us to see the leading metric in cases and take action accordingly to avoid overwhelming our hospitals.”
Local health officials, including those with the Southeast Utah Health Department, are also paying attention to case rates alongside other indicators.
“New cases are a part of the picture,” said Bradon Bradford, a health officer with the Southeast Utah Health Department. “They shouldn’t be ignored but also should not drive the entire decision about increasing or decreasing social restrictions.”
Local differences still being promised
According to the commission, local differences would be allowed across the state if Herbert accepts the recommendation. Herbert also made such a commitment earlier in the pandemic but has since overridden requests from Grand County to impose heavier restrictions on lodgings and other businesses.
“Specific areas across the state will continue to have the flexibility to easily stay or transition back to higher-risk health guidelines based on real-time data,” the commission said in a collective statement sent by Aundrea Peterson, the Utah Senate’s director of communications.