SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert said he remains cautiously optimistic that Utah has turned a corner on the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cases continue to decline. Testing has also dropped but Utah's Department of Health said overall, it could be a sign of decline of the virus. On Thursday, the state reported 334 new cases and two new deaths.
"Our best information seems to be there is less prevalence of the disease in this state," said Nate Checketts, UDOH's deputy director.
It comes as the state is bracing for a possible surge with in-person classes resuming. On Thursday, school began in the Washington County School District. Gov. Herbert defended the decision to resume classes statewide this month.
"I’m cautiously optimistic we are in a good place to start this. I think we do it in a safe way for our students and our teachers. Minimize the risk. I also like the trends we see. I think we’re in a good place, but I would emphasize it’s no time to be complacent," he said, urging Utahns to continue to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and good hygiene.
The governor urged parents to teach their children how to properly wear a mask and to lead by example.
Pressed on what the state would do if cases surged with classes re-opening, Gov. Herbert said they could close them down again. But he touted the state's 41 school districts and their plans for careful re-openings, including safety measures for teachers, staff and students.
"There is some risk involved. We’ve tried to mitigate that risk. All the plans, though, have a Plan B to it," he said.
While state health officials have reason to be optimistic about the trajectory Utah is on with COVID-19, they are bracing for possible surges with back to school and flu season in the fall. The low test numbers for the novel coronavirus also have a higher percent positive, which is a signal of community spread.
Asked by FOX 13 why the state doesn't just expand who can qualify for a COVID-19 test -- Checketts said they need to be prepared for another surge. Some mobile clinics in under-served communities are doing randomized testing of asymptomatic individuals to see where the virus is spreading.
"We’re also looking forward to the future and see what’s coming next. We have back to school and we’ll see what kind of impact the number of tests coming in and then we have the flu season, too. So as we think about the definition of who should be tested, we’re also looking at the horizon," Checketts said.
The state is working to expand rapid testing (which is slightly less accurate) to areas of need, including long-term care facilities and shelters.
Meanwhile, Utah's largest health care company issued a public plea for people. Gov. Herbert said he had recently visited an intensive care unit and was troubled to hear that some people were avoiding seeking medical care out of fears they would contract COVID-19 at a hospital or clinic.
Dr. Mark Briesacher, the chief physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said that means people are not going to get vital cancer screenings or checkups that could detect life-threatening conditions. The trend has emerged nationwide, he said.
"There’s been a 40% of reduction in the number of patients presenting to have stroke symptoms assessed and treated. There's been a 35% reduction in the number of patients presenting with symptoms of heart attack. In these conditions, every minute counts," he said.
Dr. Briesacher insisted hospitals and clinics have taken extra precautions to protect patients and staff from contracting COVID-19 within their walls. There are temperature checks, mask requirements and symptom checks.
"Please," he pleaded at a news conference Thursday. "Our hospitals are safe, we’re ready to care for you. We’re ready to care for these life threatening conditions."