Life changes dramatically in face of virus threat

These empty shelves at Walmart in Ephraim are the result of a run on retail purchases for things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. After COVID-19 was declared a national emergency last week by the White House, people began hoarding extreme amounts of some items.

Despite no locally confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Sanpete County, the novel coronavirus is rapidly impacting nearly every facet of our daily lives.

As of Tuesday, there were 41 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah residents and 10 cases from visitors. The majority of those cases are in Salt Lake County, where wide sweeping measures are being implemented to stem the tide.

On Thursday, Gov. Gary Herbert announced a plan of preemptive public measures to help slow the spread of the disease.

The plan consists of recommendations made by the Utah Coronavirus Task Force, headed by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. The measures were not arrived at lightly.

“This is being done based on good science and what has been learned from other countries,” Gov. Herbert said.

The main thrust of the recommendations was to limit mass gatherings to less than 100, including church meetings, concerts and conferences. Since then, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has since released a recommendation to limit gatherings to less than 50, and that was followed by a recommendation from the White House to limit gatherings to less than 10.

The duration is two weeks. The situation will be further evaluated after the time is up. Citizens are being encouraged to stay home when at all possible and avoid going out for unnecessary things.

Just a few days after the initial recommendations, another announcement was made saying Utah’s K-12 schools would have a “soft closure,” which would mean two weeks of students not attending class in person, and being kept home.

Although the initial statement by Herbert implied child care might be made available for those families with parents who both work, the Governor’s office has since retracted that statement and said no childcare will be made available by the schools or state of any kind.

The governor’s office says the soft closure is an important part of reducing the potential for community spread of COVID-19, but students will still retain access to school breakfast and lunch programs. Schools are working on at-home education plans to allow students to learn from their homes during the period of closure.

“This is a health issue,’’ said Gov. Herbert. “We want education to continue but we want to do it in a way that protects the health of the people of Utah.”

Per Utah code, a school dismissal (soft closure) means that students would be sent home, but facilities would be kept open and faculty and staff would be allowed to continue to work.

Last week the North Sanpete School District (NSSD) and South Sanpete School District (SSSD) met to address their plans to deal with the closure.

Teachers in both districts began preparing for online instruction on Monday, with the intention of starting online teaching Wednesday.

The One-for-One initiative in Sanpete County will allow the districts to use iPads for much of the distance learning. High school and middle school students already have assigned iPads to use, but the districts will handle the issuance of iPads to younger students for the duration of the soft closure.

In addition to the soft closure of local schools, the Utah High School Sports and Activities Association has suspended all spring sports and activities that involve a gathering of students, effectively ending the baseball, softball, soccer, tennis and track and field seasons before they really began.

Snow College initially planned on staying open until after Spring Break from March 23-27, but as the situation escalated, that was rescinded and classes were canceled as of March 16. The school is preparing to transition to fully online class work after the return from break.

“Snow College’s faculty and staff have rallied in the most remarkable ways and have been terrific problem-solvers during this challenging transition,” said Brad Cook, Snow president, in response to the pandemic. “We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I love being part of Badger Nation and we will get through this and be stronger for the effort.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released an announcement of their own that all public gatherings for worship were to be temporarily suspended, including stake conferences, leadership conferences, sacrament meetings and branch ward and stake activities.

“We encourage members in their ministering efforts to care for one another. We should follow the Savior’s example to bless and lift others,” the Church said in their coronavirus press release. “We bear our witness of the Lord’s love during this time of uncertainty. He will bless you to find joy as you do your best to live the gospel of Jesus Christ in every circumstance.”

According to Nate Selin, director of the Central Utah Public Health Department, people should follow the recommendations, but they don’t need to stress out too much.

“Overall, the county is exceptionally well prepared for this situation,” Selin said. “We have been working for weeks with the local healthcare systems to train and prepare.”

Selin said the training and organization that has been going on has prepared them for the possibility that COVID-19 comes to Sanpete County. They are prepared and ready to do screenings and dispense large amounts of medicine to the public, such as a vaccine, when and if one becomes available.

Selin also said it’s important to help prevent the overload of the local medical facilities by not showing up at the hospital, ER or medical clinics based on the assumption that you might be sick or symptomatic.

“You need to call ahead to your doctor or the hospitals and a medical professional will guide you through the process of getting tested, if needed, without risking infecting others,” he said.

Although the initial recommendations for social distancing are currently set for two weeks, Selin expects that period to be extended; but for now the public health officials are waiting to reevaluate when the two weeks is up.

Local hospitals are responding to the spread of the virus with new policies and training. Both Gunnison Valley Hospital (GVH) and Sanpete Valley Hospital (SVH) have been preparing for the new coronavirus for weeks with the help of the Central Utah Public Health Department.

“We know there is a lot of concern and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19,” said Brenda Bartholomew, Chief of Nursing at Gunnison Valley Hospital. “We’re committed to keeping our community healthy. For weeks we’ve been working closely with the Utah Department of Health to share information, monitor the status of the disease, and get ready for the expected spread of the virus in Utah.”

SVH is implementing new restrictions on visitation: only people seeking care for themselves should enter the hospital facility.

“We ask that everyone be helpful, calm and supportive of these important precautions at our hospital,” said Aaron Wood, SVH CEO. “The reason we are taking these extra precautions is in an effort to try and keep the number of people that could catch COVID-19 as low as possible.”

The new visitation restrictions might be offset in some ways with the recent introduction of telehealth by IHC, allowing people to use technology to visit with a medical professional. As the situation escalates, it is likely this method will become much more widespread in the Utah health system.

All Sanpete County senior centers are also being closed, until at least March 30, to reduce the risk of seniors contracting the virus.

Over the past week, retail locations—especially Walmart in Ephraim—have seen people flooding in the doors and buying bulk amounts of items out of fear of being quarantined without supplies. It started with items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and bleach. After Thursday’s announcement from Gov. Herbert, the run on retail continued to spiral out of control until many of the shelves were emptied not long after they had been entirely restocked.

Customers at Walmart doing their regular shopping were reported to be shocked and upset that they couldn’t buy reasonable amounts of normal items as the buying frenzy continued. Diapers, milk, bread, cereal and more are all disappearing as quickly as they could be restocked, as there have been little to no limits placed on hoarding buyers.

Authorities are asking people to not panic and not to hoard food or other items, as it only adds to a sense of public hysteria in the face of the crisis.

You don’t have to look far to see direct examples of how the threat of COVID-19 and the new, stricter guidelines from the White House are both making an impact on Sanpete County businesses and individuals.

At Kalama’s Island Style, a Hawaiian eatery in Ephraim, the owners said they have been having problems getting the rice they need for their dishes. They typically buy 50 pound bags of rice, but they had to drive as far away as Richfield to find any.

At Cotiviti, a call center in Ephraim, they are making preparations to equip their workers for remote work to keep up with workloads if further restrictive measures are put in place.

At ACT in Gunnison, the supply of important materials from China has slowed due to the COVID-19 problem, and some jobs being offered at the company had to be removed until the materials can be reliably sourced.

Cory Madsen of Ephraim has been going through the application process for a union job as a mechanic for park vehicles in Yosemite National Park. Last week he drove there to visit the area and make an informed decision about the job, only to find upon arrival that the virus had caused a hiring freeze for the park.

“I need this virus to be done with,” said Madsen, who is also an avid photographer, hoping to capture some wildlife during his free time at the new position. “At this rate, the bears are going to wake up without me.”

On Monday, a source reported they had been let go from their restaurant job after Salt Lake County made a temporary ban on dining in at all eateries (Summit County did the same). When the source called to apply for unemployment, he found there were more than 145 people on hold in front of him.

Local governments are also scrambling to adjust to the problem. As of Tuesday, Manti, Ephraim, Fairview, Sterling, Mt. Pleasant and Fountain Green were all planning a two week closure of their city offices and facilities. Walk-in public traffic to city facilities in these areas will be restricted, but access to utility services and bill paying can be done online or via dropbox in most, if not all of them.

As of Tuesday, Centerfield, Moroni, Wales, Fayette and Gunnison all are either staying open for now, or are unconfirmed.

No immediate plans have been made for closure of the Sanpete County offices.

Although many organizations and municipalities are waiting to see how the situation will play out before canceling any big community events further than 2-3 weeks away, Manti City has announced the April 11 Easter egg hunt is now canceled. More announcements of cancellation will undoubtedly follow over the next few weeks.

Gunnison City has not made a final determination to close down the city building and other city facilities. For the time being, the Gunnison Valley Pool will stay open, but remain subject to additional sanitizing methods.

“It is sort of a fluid situation at the moment,” said Gunnison recorder Janell Braithwaite.

Universally across the county, youth sports and recreation programs have been suspended or postponed for a minimum of two weeks.

In the midst of the chaos and stress brought on by the influx of changes to daily life, some people and organizations are making an effort to respond to the new challenges with help.

Fairview-based telecom company Centracom is offering free internet service to families of school age children from now until May 31. Visit http://www.centracom.com for more information. Manti Telephone Company is working with the SSSD to help with internet connections during the soft school closure as well.

The Corner Station Deli and Co-op is offering a few ways to help ease the burden of feeding kids kept home from school. This week, with every adult meal purchase, you get a free kids meal as well. They are also doing delivery with no delivery fee, but minimum order amounts do apply. Curbside service is also being offered. It is likely similar offerings will become more commonplace during this time.

Facebook groups dedicated to unity among Sanpete residents are popping up meant to facilitate the sharing of hard to find items, or just offer help to neighbors and community during the duration of the social distancing and beyond. One such Facebook is “Sanpete Unity Page.”

Snow College faculty in a group COVID-19 planning meeting.