SALT LAKE CITY — On the cusp of the Governor’s call for Utahns to lower the rolling average of new COVID-19 cases before August 1 and the start of the school year, Governor Gary Herbert said the state is moving in the right direction.
This update came during a Thursday news conference with Gov. Herbert, State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and State Superintendent Dr. Lexi Cunningham.
The general update on Thursday was that the state is reporting decreasing numbers of COVID-19 positive cases. But a deadline previously set by Governor Herbert is Saturday, August 1. By the date, the Governor wants to see an average of less than 500 daily cases of COVID-19.
The Governor’s office says they will wait through the weekend to announce the state’s next move.
Dr. Dunn began the news conference by announcing that the rolling 7-day average has dropped to 508 per day while the rolling 7-day average of positive tests was 9.6%.
“We have the opportunity to start school with case counts decreasing and being more in control,” Dunn said. “To do this we need everybody to continue wearing face masks in public, practicing physical distancing, staying home when you’re ill and using good hand hygiene.
“If we do all these things, we will continue to see a decrease in cases and start school as safely as possible,” Dunn said.
Frequently asked questions
“I’ve noticed that we’ve had a number of questions that keep coming up,” Herbert said. He asked Dunn to answer and clarify some of the questions he has frequently received.
Is the coronavirus as bad as the flu?
Q: “The first question I hear is, ‘This is no different than the flu, it’s the same thing. It’s an overreaction,'” the Governor said.
A: “We know that COVID-19 is certainly more infectious and more deadly than the annual flu,” Dunn clarified.
“To date, we’ve had twice as many hospitalizations and five times as many deaths due to COVID-19 compared to last year’s flu season … In five months of COVID-19 in Utah, we’ve had five times as many deaths due to COVID-19 compared to the eight-month flu season last year.”
What are the most important COVID-19 data points?
A: “From a public health response we look at our data to identify which populations are carrying the biggest burden of COVID-19 and what interventions would be most helpful to those populations,” Dunn said.
“We’re looking at the infectiousness death toll, but also [at] access to testing to make sure that we have as much prevention measures in place as we can to prevent and protect those at a higher risk for severe disease.”
How do you determine if someone has actually died from COVID-19
“We as the health department are notified of every individual who has COVID-19 and then passes away. We work with the clinicians and our medical examiner to determine the cause of death.
“Just because someone has COVID-19 when they pass away does not mean that they will be counted as a death due to COVID-19,” Dunn said.
“We actually investigate those cases to make sure that the cause of death is related to COVID-19”
Back to school
Dr. Dunn also clarified some recommendations from the Utah Department of Health as to what will happen if a student contracts the coronavirus while at school.
“We recognize how important it is for kids to stay in school. It is essential and we want to be able to have them stay in school in a safe environment.
“So to do this, any child who has COVID or has symptoms associated with COVID will be staying home. Those who are close contacts to a confirmed COVID case at school will have the option of having a modified quarantine. This means they will be able to attend school if their parents would like them to as long as they do not have symptoms,” Dunn said.
Dunn says this is a similar recommendation that has been used for essential employees throughout the outbreak.
“We know that this method has been proven and can help kids stay in school while maintaining a safe environment.”
Dunn says that those students who have had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case will have to wear a face-covering while in school and practice physical distancing as much as possible.
“To be clear though, this modified quarantine only applies to the classroom setting. So kids who have been in close contact to COVID, as long as they have no symptoms, can attend school and can attend classes, but they will be excluded from extracurricular activities and sports.
“They won’t be able to go to the movies or the mall,” she continued.
Dunn also said that the health department does have a standardized approach for case investigations as well as a school outbreak. As an example, she said that if there are 3 confirmed cases in a classroom, they recommend the whole class be moved to remote learning for two weeks. They also recommend that if there are 15 cases at one time at a school or 10% of the school population, whichever is lower, the whole school be moved to virtual learning for the two-week virus incubation period.
Also in attendance at this update was Dr. Ben Abbott who was the lead researcher in a BYU study into the effectiveness of masks.
“We didn’t receive any funding to do this, nor do we plan on pursuing funding. This was a review that we did because we were concerned citizens and people with scientific training. We didn’t have an agenda going into this research. We weren’t sure what the answer would be, but again, don’t take our word for it. Look at the report itself,” Abbott said.
“It is now abundantly clear that masks are an essential tool at slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Abbott said, citing research that shows that in addition to preventing spread, when masks are used, the virus is less deadly.
“Now, the mechanism behind that is not yet known. It’s possible that the amount of viral load that you get initially if you breathe in a lot of the disease, it’s more likely to be severe. [But,] if you only get a small dose, it might be less.
“Again, we don’t know the reason, but [the research] is very robust, when masks are used, the mortality rate goes down.”
Despite the effectiveness of masks, they are just a piece of the plan to contain and slow the spread of COVID-19. Abbott said it is also important to follow other guidance like frequent hand washing and social distancing.
“Masks are not a silver bullet,” Dr. Abbott said.
“The one medical concern that there has been about masks is that they can give you a false sense of security. So if you put on a mask and then go about your day as if there wasn’t a pandemic, your mask is not going to protect you.
“Masks are only proven to work when used in combination with social distancing, frequent and thorough handwashing and self-quarantining if you’ve been exposed.”
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