A local doctor says the number of COVID-19 cases has increased exponentially over the last month, causing the curve to trend upward rather than flattening.
© Intermountain Healthcare for The Spectrum & Daily News
Care givers at Dixie Regional Medical Center wear protective equipment Tuesday, May 12, 2020.
Patrick Carroll, medical director for the Intermountain Healthcare Dixie Regional Medical Center, called the increase a major concern, pointing to a steep increase in positive test results in recent weeks.
© Patrick Carroll
Patrick Carroll, medical director for the Intermountain Healthcare Dixie Regional Medical Center, shared a graph he created himself with The Spectrum, showing how case numbers have increased over time.
The increases roughly correlate with the reopening of many businesses and easing of restrictions implemented by the state when it moved to “yellow” phase on a reopening plan proposed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
© Chris Caldwell / The Spectrum & Daily News
Washington County residents carry signs along St. George Boulevard to protest quarantine orders in relation to COVID-19 Wednesday, April 22, 2020.
On May 1, the region had just counted its 100th case. Since then, the numbers have increased sharply:
May 3-9: 56
May 10-16: 55 May 17-23: 75 May 24-30: 129
The rate of infection has also ticked upward, with 3.9% of tests having come back positive as of Wednesday. That figure has nearly doubled since it was trending closer to 2% at the beginning of the month.
More: Utah’s move to ‘yellow’ does not mean time to stop wearing masks or end social distancing
Additionally, as of June 3 in the Southwestern Utah region,18 people are currently hospitalized. Four people have died.
The region’s most populous areas are seeing a proportionate number of cases, with 400 of the total 498 cases counted in Washington County and 92 coming from Iron County. Neighboring Kane, Beaver and Garfield counties had counted a combined six cases between them.
So far, 298 people had recovered, while 12,715 tests had been performed as of the most recent report.
Risk of coronavirus increasing
Carroll said that on his graph, the blue line is the cumulative number of cases in the region as reported by the Southwest Utah Department of Health from the beginning of April until now. A linear growth pattern would be a straight line, but an exponential growth pattern swings up, as seen on the graph from about May 8th onward.
“That’s what I’m referring to when I say the curve is not flat,” he said.
Carroll said the orange line is the cumulative number of cases in Washington County from the end of March until now, which also shows the same exponential growth trend.
The red bars are the average number of new cases over every three to four day period from the end of March to now. Carroll said he’d like the bars to be flat, which would mean each person with COVID-19 is infecting one or fewer people.
But instead, the red bars are trending upward, meaning each person with COVID-19 is subsequently infecting more than one additional person.
Carroll also said most of the local COVID-19 cases have come from community spread, meaning one member of the community passes the virus on to others, rather than people from outside of the area passing it on to community members.
Hospital beds filling up
In addition to rising case numbers in Southwest Utah, Dixie Regional has also seen an increase of admitted patients.
Dixie Regional is currently using more than 60% of its beds, putting it over its preferred operational threshold. The hospital doesn’t track how far past 60% it’s gone because used bed space changes so much day to day, Carroll said.
Terri Draper, director of marketing and communications for Intermountain Healthcare, said there are 284 registered hospital beds in Dixie Regional, meaning with the current hospitalization rate being over 60%, at least 170 beds are in use at any given time. Carroll attributed some of the current rate to Dixie Regional’s decision to begin performing some elective surgeries again.
According to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, on May 27 there were eight hospitalized COVID-19 patients; on May 28, 14 patients; on May 29, 17 patients; on May 30, 18 patients; May 31, 11 patients; June 1, 16 patients; June 2, 16 patients; and June 3, 18 patients.
Officials urge social distancing, hygiene
Carroll clarified that the current numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients aren’t in and of themselves overwhelming to the hospital. Rather, he’s concerned by the exponential growth pattern of COVID-19 cases in Washington County, which could mean higher and higher numbers of hospitalizations over time.
“Then that could become overwhelming, and it could happen very quickly,” he said.
Carroll said it’s important that community members take steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and keep its growth at a manageable level so that the hospital isn’t at risk of being overwhelmed.
“if we collectively, as a community, don’t take any steps to mitigate the spread of COVID, we run the risk of this spread really increasing, where we (will) have to take more significant steps,” he said.
Utah seeing COVID-19 spike statewide
The numbers are accelerating faster in southwestern Utah, but the entire state of Utah is seeing an upward trendline, a month after the move to “yellow” meant many businesses were allowed to reopen after widespread closures implemented because of the pandemic.
The state recorded an average of about 200 cases a day last week — by far the highest weekly average since the pandemic began, state figures show.
The average rate of positive tests had crept up to 4.6% as of Monday, after hovering closer to 4.3% in May. The most recently available seven-day rate of positive tests jumped to 5.2% for the week of May 19.
“It could mean we’re just starting the acceleration phase of the outbreak and can anticipate further increases in the coming weeks,” Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, said Wednesday. “We’re very much working hard in continuing our contact tracing actions.”
Committee proposes move from ‘yellow’ to ‘green’
A committee of Utah’s GOP-controlled Legislature that was formed to address the pandemic recommended Tuesday that the state take the next step in loosening restrictions. The move is pending the approval of Gov. Gary Herbert, also a Republican. It wasn’t immediately clear what new measures would be put in place.
Since the state first reopened hair salons, gyms, restaurants and bars on May 1, the number of reported cases has doubled from nearly 5,000 to over 10,000. Utah further relaxed coronavirus-related restrictions across much of the state on May 14, allowing team sports to resume, pools to open and groups of up to 50 people to gather.
There have been at least 117 deaths from COVID-19 in Utah, according to state figures.
The rise in cases comes as protesters gather nightly in Salt Lake City over the death of Floyd, a black man who died after an officer pressed his knee into his neck for several minutes even after he stopped moving and pleading for air.
Utah Health Department spokesman Tom Hudachko said any large gathering or protest in which people don’t practice social distancing could be dangerous.
“There is certainly the potential that an environment like that could be ripe for infecting people, and we’ll just have to wait and see if the cases and the contact tracing of those cases bear that out,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Kaitlyn Bancroft reports on faith, health, education, crime and under-served communities for The Spectrum & Daily News, a USA TODAY Network newsroom in St. George, Utah. You can reach her at KBancroft@thespectrum.com, or follow her on Twitter @katbancroft.
This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: Hospital director says COVID-19 cases increasing ‘exponentially’ in southwest Utah