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Recent COVID-19 figures caused Gov. Gary Herbert to issue a new mask mandate.

Schools scramble to

keep up with COVID

 

Cases spiking countywide as governor

declares new state of emergency

 

By Rhett Wilkinson & Robert Stevens

Staff writers

11-11-2020

 

Local school districts and Snow College are reporting increased numbers of students, faculty and staff testing positive for coronavirus, along with a sharp rise in the numbers who are in quarantine.

Meanwhile, the Central Utah Department of Public Health (CUDPH) reported that as of Monday, the number of active cases in Sanpete County as a whole was up more than 50 percent from nine days earlier.

“We keep hearing, ‘It’s up north, it’s up north,’” said Ralph Squire, superintendent in the South Sanpete School District. “Well, now it’s here.”

He described the virus as being like a snowball. “It rolls along and it gets bigger and bigger.” Marci Larsen, assistant to the president at Snow College, said, “While we have seen an increase in the virus spreading on our campus, thankfully it has been at a slower rate than the other institutions in Utah.”

The school, college and countywide numbers came out a day before an “extreme alert” went out from the governor’s office Sunday to cell phones statewide.

“The number of infections in our state is growing at an alarming rate,” the governor said in a televised speech that followed the emergency text. “Our hospitals here in Utah are among the best in the world, but they cannot give the best care when they are at capacity, and medical professionals are exhausted and spread too thin. And that is what is happening now.”

A tracking “dashboard” on the Snow College website showed the college had no cases from Aug. 24, the first day of classes, until Oct. 26, approximately two weeks ago. In the 11 days between Oct. 26 and last Saturday, Nov. 5, 35 students, faculty or staff tested positive for the virus.

And according to Larsen, in the past two weeks, 102 members of the campus community have been quarantined. The term “quarantined” encompasses people who have not tested positive or shown symptoms themselves but have had contact with someone who has.

In the South Sanpete School District, 40 students, faculty or staff have tested positive and 286 been quarantined since the school year began. Nine of the positives (22 percent) and 116 of the quarantines (40 percent) have happened in the past two weeks.

The Messenger was unable to obtain figures from the North Sanpete School District on the number of positives and number of quarantines since the school year began. But the district did report that in the past two weeks, nine people in its schools had tested positive for the coronavirus, while 102 had been quarantined.

In Sanpete County as a whole, the spike in cases was more dramatic. As of Oct. 27, the CUDPH reported 407 residents had tested positive since the pandemic began. In that time, there had been two deaths.

On Monday, nine days later, the total number of cases in the county was up to 619 with three deaths. That translates to 212 new positive cases, a 52 percent jump.

Sanpete County was already under a mask mandate when the new state of emergency was announced. But on Sunday, the governor extended the mask mandate statewide until further notice.

Herbert announced businesses must require employees and patrons to wear masks. They must also post signs saying masks are required. “Those who fail to do so will be subject to fines from the Utah Labor Commission,” the governor said.

“Masks do not negatively affect our economy and wearing them is the easiest way to slow the spread of the virus,” he said. “Experts tell us masks do not cause a shortage of oxygen to your brain or cause disease.”

He added, “Laws are put in place to protect all of us. That’s why we have traffic lights, speed limits and seat belts, and that’s why we now have a mask mandate.”

Furthermore, the governor said Utahns may not have casual social gatherings with people outside their households for the next two weeks, from Monday, Nov. 9 to Monday, Nov. 23.

And there are to be no mass public gatherings at all, the governor said. “State and local authorities will prosecute and hold accountable those who sponsor and organize such events and gatherings,” he said. “Organizers will be subject to fines of up to $10,000 per occurrence.”

Another tenant of the emergency order is cancellation of all high school sports and community recreation from Nov. 9 to Nov. 23. The only exception is any high school playoff or championship games.

That doesn’t apply to Sanpete County, since all of our high school sports teams have finished their playoffs. Nor does the suspension apply to any intercollegiate sports. But no sports are being played at Snow College right now.

The governor also announced a big increase in testing, with a strong emphasis on 15-24 age group. Herbert said much of the transmission of coronavirus in Utah is originating in that age group.

The governor said there would be increased testing of students on the state’s college campuses. Between now and Jan. 1, colleges, including Snow College, must get set up to test every student weekly. “We’ll meet the deadline by Jan. 1,” Marci Larsen said.

The school boards in both Sanpete County districts have called special meetings to talk about COVID-19 and compliance with the governor’s orders.

The North Sanpete School Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday evening and the South Sanpete School Board Wednesday afternoon. Both meetings are virtual.

Gunnison Valley High was scheduled for a girl’s preseason basketball game on Nov. 18, while Manti girls were scheduled to play Nov. 20. Those games will be cancelled. But North Sanpete and Manti both have boys varsity games scheduled on Nov. 24, the day after the two-week pause.

Squire was asked if the basketball season would need to be postponed to provide time for tryouts and practices.

“We are waiting to hear from [the Utah High School Activities Association],” Squire said. “They emailed [Sunday] and said more information will be coming to work things out.”

Both superintendents have emphasized that their schools enforce mask wearing and social distancing. Transmission of the virus to students, they say, often occurs outside the school setting, primarily in homes.