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State officials are scrapping the color-coded system they’ve been using for months to guide their regional responses to COVID-19, changing strategy as they grapple with a record-breaking surge in cases.
Starting Tuesday, the level of transmission in each of the 29 counties will be measured based on case rates, positivity rates and hospitalizations. Each county will be listed as “high,” “moderate” or “low” levels, with mask requirements, gathering size limits and other restrictions varying across transmission levels.
Schools are allowed to remain open for in-person learning at all transmission levels, according to the state. Religious services and events with “organizational oversight” are not subject to the size restrictions on social gatherings, under the new system.
A fact sheet indicates that the state is generally rolling back its industry-specific COVID-19 guidelines, except for restaurants, bars and establishments that allow public gatherings.
Six counties — Salt Lake, Utah, Cache, Garfield, Juab and Wasatch — are currently designated as high transmission areas under the new system.
On Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 987 new coronavirus cases. Case counts and infection rates are the highest they’ve ever been, and Utah’s health care system is becoming strained, Gov. Gary Herbert said at the news conference where officials explained the new system.
“We are having one of the worst outbreaks in the country and this is unacceptable,” Herbert said.
“Some of our hospitals are already load-leveling,” moving patients around to make room for COVID-19 patients, Herbert said. He also said the state’s health department and National Guard are on standby to open a field hospital in the Mountain American Expo Center in Sandy.
Counties will fall into the high transmission category if two or more of these criteria are met:
A seven-day average test positivity rate of 13% or more; a 14-day case rate of 325 or more per 100,000 people; and a statewide intensive care utilization of 72% or higher, with at least 15% of total beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.
With the new system, “There’s a focus on masks, and masks being required, based on the level of transmission in your area,” said Rich Saunders, acting director of the Utah Department of Health, adding that people across Utah are being asked to use masks “because they help.”
In counties at a “high” transmission level, masks are required at all indoor settings, he said. Casual social gatherings, he added, are responsible for much of the recent spike in cases. And in “high” transmission counties, casual social gatherings are limited to 10 people or fewer, he said.
In “moderate” and “low” areas, masks are “strongly encouraged,” Saunders said. In “moderate” counties, the gathering limit is 25 people or fewer, unless masks are worn. In “low” counties, gatherings are limited to 50 or fewer people, unless masks are worn.
But as a two-week “circuit breaker” from now through Oct. 29, rules will be tightened for mask use in all moderate-transmission counties, he said. Also, moderate- and low-transmission counties will be told to limit casual social gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
Existing mask mandates — in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, in public schools and all state-run businesses — remain in effect, Saunders said.
Changes will be announced weekly. “Counties can only be moved from higher to lower levels after spending a minimum of 14 days in that lower level,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn noted.
Businesses are expected to maintain healthy practices, and it’s up to consumers to judge whether a business is doing so,” Saunders said. He touted the state’s “Stay Safe to Stay Open” campaign to help find businesses that are using health protocols.
For public gatherings — such as movie theaters, sporting events, wedding venues, and other places — the emphasis is less on number of visitors and more on how much space the venue operator can give for social distancing, Saunders said.
In “high” transmission counties, the distance should be 6 feet apart. For “moderate” counties, the same space is recommended, though there are more exemptions. For “low” counties, masks are still encouraged for patrons and staff.
Six-feet distancing is required in bars and restaurants in “high” transmission counties. The same distancing is recommended in “medium” counties, and “strongly encouraged” in “low” counties, Saunders said.
“Our announcement of this new system without your involvement is practically nothing,” Saunders said, adding that the rates will change when people’s behavior changes. “Change will make the difference,” he said.
Herbert said he expects a mask mandate to be honored by individuals, without much enforcement from the government. “I don’t suspect there will be a lot of people looking out for violators,” he said.
“Most people are wearing a mask, certainly much more than we did before,” Herbert said, adding that he hopes Utahns “will jump in together in a new spirit of cooperation.”
“The design is not to impose civil penalties, or cause trouble with some kind of enforcement method,” Saunders said. “Our goal is toward general cooperation.”
House Speaker Brad Wilson said the new system, “most importantly, … places responsibility for our state’s response with each of us individually.”
As COVID-19 cases have increased across the state, he said in a prepared statement, “it has become evident that the color-coded system implemented during the first weeks of the pandemic was no longer meeting the needs of the ongoing response.”
The new index, Wilson said, is “data-driven and sets statewide standards while empowering local elected and health officials to tailor restrictions to address local needs.”
Herbert said on Twitter that the changes come from “days of round-the-clock discussions with public health experts and legislative leaders.”
“I, like you, am tired of 2020. I’m tired of emergencies, and of social distancing,” Herbert said. “It doesn’t matter how tired we are. We must, in fact, win this fight.”
The color-coded guidelines, which classified counties into red, orange, yellow and green categories, have become a source of friction between state and local leaders at times over the course of the pandemic.
Most recently, Herbert has opted against granting Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s request to return the city to “orange,” or moderate, restrictions to combat a spiking number of infections. On the other hand, officials in some rural communities have railed at the state for refusing to move them to a less restrictive category.
The Utah Department of Health on Tuesday reported a seven-day average of 1,182 new positive test results per day — below Saturday’s record of 1,189, but far above the state’s goal to keep weeklong averages to fewer than 400 new cases per day.
Record-high numbers of new cases in the past week were reported in Davis and Tooele counties as well as the Central Utah, Southeast Utah and Weber-Morgan health districts.
Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 522 on Tuesday, the same as Monday.
Hospitalizations held steady on Tuesday, with 249 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 241 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — continuing an increase that began in mid-September.
In total, 4,383 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 52 from Monday. Utah’s intensive care units were 65.1% occupied as of Tuesday, meeting the state’s goal of less than 85% occupancy.
For the past week, 13.8% of all tests have come back positive — a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said. Statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.
There were 8,801 new test results reported on Tuesday, above the weeklong average of 8,019 new tests per day.