Utah epidemiologist warns coronavirus surge could result in state’s 'complete shutdown'

A top epidemiologist in Utah recently warned of another “complete shutdown” in the state if the average number of new daily coronavirus cases does not go down.

In a memo provided to state and local health officials last Friday, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, warned that Utahns are “quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown,” if daily new COVID-19 cases do not reach 200 or below by July 1, according to a copy of the memo provided to the Salt Lake Tribune. 

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For context, the state reported some 444 new cases on Monday, marking the 26th straight day with more than 200 newly reported cases, according to the newspaper.

Currently, with the exception of Salt Lake City, nearly all of Utah is in “yellow” and “green” phases of reopening; yellow means there is a low risk of infection while green represents the “‘new normal” in the state. “Orange” and “red” represent a moderate risk and high risk, respectively. Cases began to surge on May 27, or about 12 days after the state moved into the yellow phase of reopening, said the memo.

Utah may need to move back to “orange”  if the state does not lower its average number of new daily coronavirus cases by next month.

“This might be our last chance for course correction,” the memo reads. “Utahns care about these colors. They change their actions based on them. They are the key messaging tool to the public.”

Health officials in the memo also wrote that moving back to orange “will send the message to Utahns that this outbreak continues to be a serious problem, and state leadership is committed to saving lives and preventing a complete economic shutdown.”

If state officials do not stop the easing of restrictions and mandate the use of face coverings, “we need to be clear with the public about why decisions are being made lessening restrictions,” they wrote, noting it would be for economic reasons, not health ones.

“We have heard from the [Utah Hospital Association, University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare] that hospitals are going to exceed their capacity to care for individuals within the next 4-8 weeks,” they added.

But responding to the memo on Twitter, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said he currently “has no plans to shut down Utah’s economy” despite the fact he “shares many of [Dunn’s] concerns.”

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“Dr. Dunn’s internal memo raises alarm about the increasing COVID-19 cases in Utah. I appreciate her analysis and share many of her concerns. We will work to stem this tide, but I have no plans to shut down Utah’s economy,” the tweet reads.

"I urge Utahns to protect themselves and their loved ones from the spread of the virus by following our common sense guidelines for social distancing, good hand hygiene and especially the use of face coverings. #StayStrongUtah," he added.

To date, the Beehive State has reported some 18,300 cases of the novel virus and more than 160 COVID-19 deaths, according to official state estimates.