SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah faces a "complete shutdown" as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, the state epidemiologist warned in a memo shared with FOX 13.
"We are in the acceleration phase of the COVID-19 outbreak in Utah. We went yellow on May 15. Our surge in cases started on May 27, 12 days after going yellow. Utahns care about these colors. They change their actions based on them. They are the key messaging tool to the public," Dr. Angela Dunn said in the memo sent to the state's COVID-19 Unified Command based in the Utah State Capitol.
"All of our goals are aligned - keep the economy open and prevent deaths/ illnesses. We are quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown. This might be our last chance for course correction. Contact tracing and testing alone will not control this outbreak."
Dr. Dunn wrote that Intermountain Healthcare warned it would exceed ICU hospital capacity in July, and University of Utah Health could exceed capacity in "four to eight weeks."
"If we do not reach a rolling 7-day average of 200/cases per day by July 1, we need to move the entire state to orange. This 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," she wrote.
Dr. Dunn recommended the state mandate face coverings "either by government or business enforcement."
"If above isn’t reasonable, we need to be clear with public about why decisions are being made lessening restrictions – economic, not health. Be clear about health risk. Be clear about how these decisions are made and who makes them. This will better equip the public to make informed decisions about how to protect themselves and their health," she wrote.
Utah has seen an uptick in cases ever since the state moved to "yellow" or a low risk for COVID-19 around Memorial Day. It loosens restrictions and allows businesses to open under certain health guidelines. Last week, Governor Gary Herbert moved 10 counties to "green," the lowest risk for the virus. Even then, it was still strongly recommended that people social distance and use face coverings.
Only Salt Lake City remains at an "orange" or moderate risk level.
Dr. Dunn routinely makes recommendations to the state based on the trajectory of the virus. However, she is one voice among many that advise the governor on what to do. He also takes input from state business leaders and legislators, who have continually pushed for a re-opening of the state to help the economy, which has been significantly impacted by COVID-19.
"The Governor shares Dr. Angela Dunn’s concern about the increased spread of the virus in our state. Her memo was prepared specifically to help frame key issues for this week’s leadership deliberations about how to address the surge in cases. Dr. Dunn will be a part of those consultations, and her analysis will be front and center in our meetings," a spokeswoman for Gov. Herbert told FOX 13.
"Our plan will only be as successful as the willingness of people 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."
Last week, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, who heads the state's COVID-19 task force, told FOX 13 the state would do more to push face coverings, but would not mandate them.
Dr. Dunn said in her memo the state has been expanding its efforts for contact tracing, testing (particularly among high-risk groups) and working with employers to limit virus spread and ensuring employees don't come to work sick. She also urged better communications with the public on what the color-coded guidelines mean.
"The public equates the color-coded phased guidelines with risk of COVID-19 spread. We must be clear that the color equates with the economic restrictions in place. And that the risk of COVID19 spread is higher as the restrictions are lower," she wrote.