SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Halloween is a little over a month away and Utah’s COVID-19 late September surge is downright scary. Every day since the COVID-19 pandemic took ahold of Utah and our way or life, 1 p.m. has become the most important hour of the day for most journalists.

The Utah Department of Health usually emails its daily case count to the media at that hour, plus or minus a few minutes. The email is rather generic and cuts right to the point.  It lists the positive cases, lab tests, trends, hospitalizations, deaths, and recovered.

This week’s spikes make me seriously question if these warnings and public education are enough.

Governor GARY herbert

But, on those days when the routine email opens with the anything but a routine statement from a state official like epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn or Governor Gary Herbert, one automatically assumes the positive case counts or death numbers are high.

Friday was a case-in-point and Governor Herbert didn’t mince his words.

The statement began, “This is another alarming day for our COVID-19 case numbers. We are clearly in an upward trend of cases. For months, we have warned people that they need to stay home if they are sick, and they need to stay away from others if they have tested positive for COVID-19. This week’s spikes make me seriously question if these warnings and public education are enough. I will meet with the Unified Command leadership again Monday to discuss needed interventions.”

If the numbers the past three days are any indication, intervention in the state’s battle to slow the spread of COVID-19 is desperately needed.

Friday, Utahns witnessed a record 1,117 new positive cases. The next day, there were 110 fewer at 1,007 and Sunday, another 920 positive cases. That’s a staggering 3,114 positive cases in as many days.

Earlier this summer, the Governor warned Utahns that greater government restrictions could be enacted, like a statewide mask mandate, if the rolling seven-day average of new positive cases didn’t dip below 500 by August 1st.

That challenge was met and the Governor’s office issued a new benchmark, a rolling average of below 400 daily new COVID-19 cases by September 1st.  

Mission accomplished.

But a lot has transpired in the last 19 days, namely the start of school. Now, instead of having the upper hand on a pandemic that has threatened our way of life, the state finds itself in crisis mode.

Friday, Governor Herbert renewed his Executive Order that keeps Utah under a State of Emergency.  

Utah’s top scientists and senior policy makers are scrambling to put together a plan and will discuss the possible “interventions” Monday. One of the “interventions” up for discussion would have to be a state-wide mask mandate, a hot-button issue that has divided the state and nation.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert shares updates during a COVID-19 pandemic press conference

In UDOH’s daily COVID-19 case count media release the Governor stated, “I’d like to emphasize that all of the tools that government has for controlling the spread of COVID-19 are on the table. We are seriously considering each one of them.”

Consider, according to the Utah Department of Health, the rolling seven-day average for positive cases is 835, more than double the prior goal established by Governor Herbert.

Possibly more troubling, the rate at which Utahns tested positive during this time frame: 13.1 percent.  

The positivity rate is the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that are actually positive (positive tests divided by total tests x 100). Essentially, 13 out of every 100 Utahns are testing positive for coronavirus.

Public health officials said this figure is critically important because it tells them how widespread infection is and whether levels of testing are keeping up with levels of disease transmission.

Salt Lake County Health Department’s public health nurse Lee Cherie Booth performs a coronavirus anti-body test outside the Salt Lake County Health Department Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Comprehending the percentages, statistics and numbers surrounding COVID-19 and its transmission can be mind-numbing. Ronald D. Fricker Jr, Ph.D. a Virginia Tech statistician described it best when he wrote:

“A good way to think about test positivity is to think about fishing with a net. If you catch a fish almost every time you send the net down – high test positivity – that tells you there are probably a lot of fish around that you haven’t caught – there are a lot of undetected cases. On the other hand, if you use a huge net – more testing – and only catch a fish every once in a while, – low test positivity – you can be pretty sure that you’ve caught most of the fish in the area.”

The World Health Organization in May recommended that the positivity rate remain below 5 percent for at least two weeks before governments relax social distancing and consider reopening. Utah’s positivity rate is almost triple the WHO’s recommendation.

Another figure state leaders will take a close look at Monday is Utah’s Rt or rate of transmission. A 1.0 transmission rate means that each person who has COVID-19 passes it to one other person. 

The higher above the number 1.0, the faster the virus spreads through the population. Conversely, a number below 1.0 indicates the virus is receding. Hence the term, “flattening the curve”.  

RT.Live, a website that tracks the spread of COVID-19 in each state, shows as of Sunday morning at 9 a.m. that Utah’s Rt stands at an eye-opening 1.17. Only Wisconsin, Rhode Island and New Hampshire have a higher rate of transmission.  

Since the state’s re-opening back on May 1st, Utah’s rate of transmission has been higher than 1.17 on only two occasions. May 9th and May 10th, when the Rt reached 1.18. Between May 11th and May 17th, the state’s Rt hovered at 1.19. 

State officials said they anticipated a higher number of positive cases in association with the opening of schools which began back on August 13th.

Salt Lake County Health Department COVID-19 Data Dashboard shows 533 positive cases in county district schools.

In Salt Lake County, the state’s largest, there have been 533 total cases in the county’s 153 schools. Just in the last 14 days, the County’s schools have seen a staggering 369 positive COVID-19 cases.

Draper’s Corner Canyon High, a school that serves more than 2,000 students has been hit the hardest. The school is dealing with at least 70 cases and more than 500 students are quarantined.

Starting Monday, the campus will have to switch to 100 percent online instruction for two-weeks.  

Draper’s Corner Canyon High School will switch to online learning for two weeks Monday 9/21 due to Covid-10 outbreak

That seems trivial when you consider the state’s largest teacher union’s worst fears have been realized. Beloved Corner Canyon teacher Charri Jensen tested positive for COVID-19 on September 10th and has been hospitalized since Wednesday, September 16th.  

In response to the outbreak in schools, the Utah Education Association has called on Governor Herbert to shut down any school for two weeks that has 15 or more positive cases.

According to the Salt Lake County Health Department’s website, along with Corner Canyon, other schools in Salt Lake County dealing with at least 15 cases include: Alta, Brighton, Granger, Riverton High Schools and American Prep Academy (Draper 1 Campus).

Monday, as our state leaders gather to decide the best course of action to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Utah, three items must be discussed: masks, flattening the curve, and an increase in testing.

Mounting research illustrates the importance of donning a mask in the fight to contain the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention testified last week before a Senate subcommittee investigating COVID-19 response that the CDC has, “clear scientific evidence they work and they are our best defense.”

Dr. Redfield, also stated that, “I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine.”

A teacher protests outside the Granite School District in August

As for flattening the curve and increased testing, Prof. Fricker astutely wrote, “There are two ways to lower a test positivity rate: either by decreasing the number of positive tests or by increasing the total number of tests. A comprehensive testing program does both. By conducting a large number of tests, most cases in the community are detected. Then, individual and government actions can be taken that contain the virus. This results in a declining number of positive tests. “