Gov. Gary Herbert announced on Thursday that the majority of Utah will transition from an “orange” to “yellow” designation this weekend as COVID-19 infection rates continue to decline in most of the state.
The color-coded tiered phases are part of Herbert’s “Utah Leads Together” plan for gradually reopening the economy. Orange indicates “moderate risk” for the general public while yellow indicates “low risk.”
Herbert announced during a press conference on Thursday that most of the state will move into the yellow phase effective 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Grand, Summit and Wasatch counties, as well as Salt Lake City and West Valley City, will remain classified as orange.
“I like the trend,” Herbert said about the decrease in COVID-19 infection rates throughout most of the state. “I like the numbers. I like what’s taking place. It gives me hope and optimism about the future.”
The governor’s decision to transition most of the state to a low-risk designation was recommended by the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which is chaired by Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, and Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, the acting director of the Utah Department of Health.
On Thursday, Hemmert said Utah’s COVID-19 transmission rate has dropped over the past two weeks.
“The goal is to be near (a) 1:1 (transmission rate) for a period of 14 days,” said Hemmert. “The state’s been between 1 and 1.5 for over 21 days.”
Hemmert added that the state’s intensive care unit (ICU) utilization rate has been below 60% for more than three weeks, meaning Utah is exceeding its goal to be below 60% for 14 days.
According to Michael Good, CEO of University of Utah Health, 99% of Utahns who have contracted COVID-19 are recovering or have already recovered, and the vast majority of them, 92%, recover at home.
“So that’s really good news for Utah,” Good said.
Good added that 70% of those in Utah who have died from COVID-19 were over 65, and over 90% were over 65 and had “serious medical conditions.”
With movement into the “yellow” phase for most of the state, Herbert said this will allow team sports to begin play, specifically mentioning baseball and soccer, with fans and players still undertaking what added precautions they could.
Burton said that “social gatherings that are not controlled by an entity (or) business can increase from 20 to 50 (individuals).”
“The other change is that you can leave your home as needed,” Burton said, adding that K-12 public schools will remain closed for the remainder of the school year.
According to Burton, pools can open “as long as social distancing is maintained on the pool deck.”
All businesses will be allowed to function during the yellow phase as long as they institute social distancing, according to Brooke Scheffler, the governor’s spokesperson.
Herbert emphasized the importance of maintaining hygiene standards and wearing a mask when going out in public during the low-risk phase.
“Studies show that wearing masks — even homemade ones — dramatically decreases the spread of COVID-19,” Herbert tweeted on Thursday. “Wear a mask when around others to prevent spreading any germs you might have.”
As of Thursday, there have been 6,749 total COVID-19 cases in Utah and 75 deaths since the outbreak began, according to the Utah Department of Health. More than 160,000 Utahns are reported to have been tested.
More information about the guidelines for individuals and businesses during the low-risk phase can be found at http://coronavirus.utah.gov/utahns-low-risk-phase.
“When you least expect it, expect it.” That is the mantra Adam Whitaker, executive director of the Central and Southern Utah Chapter of the American Red Cross, is using when it comes to COVID-19.
In an area known for donating blood and having blood drives, the current pandemic set the local Red Cross chapter on its end.
“The area was one of the hardest hit for blood drives right at the beginning of COVID,” Whitaker said.
Nearly every blood drive was canceled and blood donations in Utah County basically went away. According to Whitaker, there was no knowledge about what was safe to do, no protocols for COVID-19 were in place, and they didn’t know what to expect.
“We had a lot of sponsors that canceled,” said Jason Fredrickson, district manager of southern Utah and Nevada District. Fredrickson works with the mobile blood drives.
“Once that word got out, communities responded and we saw a great uptick in donors,” Fredrickson said. “They have now kind of plateaued.”
Fredrickson said it wasn’t because of a lack of donors but sponsor businesses, churches, universities, etc., were closing.
“They started shutting down, and we had nowhere to go,” he said.
One of the only positives for the March and April drops in blood donations was that COVID-19 patients were not needing blood and elective surgeries were being delayed.
“I would say we were really hurting,” Whitaker added. “We are still operating at the red phase but we are getting on solid footing.”
With surgeries starting up again, blood donations and blood drives are going to be needed more than ever, Whitaker said.
“With elective surgeries being reintroduced in Utah, and with the ongoing need for blood in our hospitals in all the other needed categories of patient care, we’re seeing the demand for whole blood and blood products rise,” Whitaker said. “Our local community has been so generous in giving, but the need continues and will. It doesn’t really offer a chance to rest, so as often as someone is able — to give personally or sponsor an organizational drive — it’s more than merely welcome: It’s really needed.”
With blood drives starting up again, Whitaker noted, there are new procedures. You must make appointments ahead of time. Fewer people are lining up and waiting at blood drives for safety reasons.
Whitaker said he would like to see drives with 30 or more donors. However, spacing out donors and time slots is the current protocol.
“We have to protect the blood supply and the donors,” Whitaker said. “It’s a different kind of normal.”
What is normal are the myriad other emergency services the Red Cross continues to maintain.
“We need help. We need volunteers, blood donations and help funding our preparedness, response and relief efforts,” Whitaker added. “We can’t do it alone, and have been blessed and fortunate not to have had to so far. There is a special and notable spirit of giving and participating in our communities throughout central and southern Utah. People look out for people here, and we’re glad to be an organized part of it.”
Emergency Red Cross services are being tested in many ways.
“Amid our current COVID-19 environment, the relief work of the American Red Cross continues. It has to,” Whitaker said. “We take all the appropriate safety precautions, but we don’t have the luxury being on the sidelines. Home fires, wildfires, flooding, tornadoes, hurricanes, malaria in west Africa, the recent earthquake in Salt Lake County — response to disasters of so many types — none of these wait and take turns with a global pandemic.”
The American Red Cross website notes that blood is always a gift of life that is needed.
“There is no known end date in this fight against coronavirus, and the Red Cross needs the help of blood and platelet donors and blood drive hosts to maintain a sufficient blood supply for weeks to come. In times of crisis, the Red Cross is fortunate to witness the best of humanity as people roll up a sleeve to help those in need.”
Whitaker said he is grateful for the help of many in accomplishing the important humanitarian work of the Red Cross.
There will be a blood drive from 1 to 7 p.m., Tuesday, May 19 at the Seventh-Day Adventist Church Community Center (255 S. 700 East, Provo). For an appointment, go to http://redcrossblood.org using sponsor code: SeventhDayCommunity. This drive will be by appointment only. Contact Brooke Bakken at (801) 520-8593 with any questions or help with online appointments.
For those who would like to donate blood or sponsor a blood drive, visit https://redcrossblood.org. Drives may be held from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Another piece has fit into the puzzle that is the Utah Valley University master plan for expansion.
This week, the school announced the acquisition of a 103,000-square-foot building at Thanksgiving Point in Lehi, a process that took two years. The building, which is located at 2912 W. Executive Parkway, was approved for purchase in March 2019 for $22.11 million.
The university opened its satellite campus in 2017 in the same building and has been leasing the property in the meantime.
“Lehi and north Utah County are, without question, great hubs of ideas, innovation and growth,” said Astrid S. Tuminez, president of UVU. “Early in my tenure, I was very excited to learn about Silicon Slopes and the potential synergies between industry and academia. The long-awaited UVU campus at Thanksgiving Point is a physical location that will facilitate these powerful synergies. As we forge closer partnerships with industry, I am confident that students, families, employers and Utah’s economy will be the clear beneficiaries.”
In the fall of 2018, Utah Valley welcomed 39,931 students to its Orem campus. Val Peterson, vice president of Finance and Administration, said the estimated number of students for fall 2020 is 41,211.
With the growth expected to continue, the school implemented a master plan for expansion which was headed by former president Matthew Holland in 2016.
“The master plan idea is to interconnect with mass transit and recreate walkable communities for the students,” Peterson said. “One of the hallmarks of UVU is responding to the educational needs of the community. As we do that, we’re increasing the total of programs available. We’re currently offering 94 bachelor’s degrees and eight masters degrees.”
Currently, UVU has campuses in Orem, Lehi (Thanksgiving Point), Heber (Wasatch Campus), Provo Airport, Vineyard, Capitol Reef Field Station and owns land in Payson. There is a full campus planned where the Geneva Steel Mill used to be.
The Vineyard area already contains the Wolverine Training Dome and in the future more sports facilities will be located in the southern property. There are 125 acres to the north, where the school hopes to build an innovation campus with an emphasis on entrepreneurship and future tech.
The expansion of the FrontRunner system in Utah County is an important piece to the master plan. The newly purchased building is across the street from the FrontRunner station in Lehi.
“We’re trying to be responsive to the growth in IT and the Silicon Slopes idea for those businesses,” Peterson said. “We want the students to have the skills to move forward and provide the educational programs they need in that area. That’s what the north county building is about.”
Peterson said the message he delivered to the faculty this week is that the school plans to have its students on campus in the fall.
“With what is happening with COVID-19, there has been a lot of discussion with online vs. face-to-face classes,” he said. “We have a large portion of students that really want to attend face-to-face classes. We have to balance our online offerings with face-to-face, and we need the facilities to be able to provide those opportunities.”
Utah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue recovered the bodies of two teenage girls Thursday afternoon, who had vanished after swimming at Utah Lake on May 6.
According to multiple sources, the bodies of 18-year-old Priscilla Bienkowski and 17-year-old Sophia Hernandez were discovered by search and rescue crews early Thursday afternoon.
Bienkowski and Hernandez were initially reported missing the afternoon of May 6, after a fisherman answered one of the girl’s phones sitting on the shore. The mother of one of the girls was calling her daughter after not hearing from her for some time.
Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith held a press conference at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Lincoln Beach Marina to discuss further details about the case.
During the press conference, Smith said that a fisherman discovered the body of one of the girls “nearly” on the shore of Lincoln Beach at 1:45 p.m. Almost three hours later, the second body was discovered by a search and rescue plane flying over the lake near Goshen Bay.
The second body was discovered a half of a mile north of where the first tube was discovered, about 8.5 miles from where the girls got into the water.
“One of the most important things that I want to say tonight is, on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office and all of the volunteers and everybody that has helped through this, is express our sincerest condolences to the families of these girls,” Smith said. “This has been hard on everybody involved. I want to thank the families for their patience with us. I can’t imagine and never want to imagine what they’re going through.”
Utah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Sergeant Justin Gordon said the hardest part of the search was battling the weather; however, the outcome of the search has left many of the individuals who searched the lake scratching their heads.
Gordon said crews were working the areas where the girls’ bodies should have been, but the pair were discovered 6 miles east of the area officials were focusing on.
Utah Lake is a dynamic lake with a significant influence when hit with wind, Utah State Parks Clean Vessel Act Grant Coordinator Ty Hunter said. The lake is about 96,000 surface acres but very shallow compared to others like it. The shallow nature of the lake can indirectly cause it to be more dangerous, he said.
“There is a large amount of complacency with the depth of this lake with those that may visit here,” Hunter said. “Even with the shallowness, this lake can turn from flat glass to extreme conditions that are out there in just a moment’s notice.”
The two girls were confirmed to have not been wearing life jackets at the time of their disappearance. Hunter said if the girls had been wearing a life jacket, the outcome of their trip to the lake could have been different.
When Utah County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived on scene the day the girls went missing, they discovered the girls’ personal belongings and one of the girl’s abandoned vehicle, Sgt. Spencer Cannon said.
The girls were suspected to have gotten into the water near the Knolls before 3 p.m. on May 6.
During the initial search, deputies discovered two pool tubes the girls were suspected to have been using 3.3 miles from each other in the reeds that line the shore of Utah Lake. The two tubes were found 5.2 and 8.5 miles south of where the girls were suspected to have been found.
After the girls’ disappearance, a heavy windstorm hit the area, creating large waves that trapped kayakers on the lake, he said. That night, wind speeds reached upward of 40 mph from north to south.
When authorities continued the search the next morning, water temperatures had reached 57 degrees, and the water remained choppy.
Since their disappearance, around 60 individuals from several law enforcement agencies have worked 60-80 hours each to locate the missing teens, including search and rescue volunteers, Utah County deputies, Department of Public Safety staff, Utah State Parks staff, and deputies from Wasatch, Weber, Summit and Sanpete counties.
Four helicopters and two airplanes were used to search the area from the air, while authorities also used 10 boats, side-scan sonar, and 12 wave runners to search from the water, Cannon said.
Authorities reduced their search efforts on Utah Lake on Sunday to pursue other avenues.
“If the girls are in the water, this is a recovery operation, not a rescue operation,” Cannon said in a previous interview. “If they’re in water, there is no chance that they’re alive.”
During their investigation, officials were able to obtain surveillance footage of Hernandez purchasing items from a Saratoga Springs Walmart before 3 p.m. the day she disappeared. Additionally, deputies had video of Hernandez parking her car to get into Bienkowski’s vehicle.
The girls had also been traveling to the Knolls at Utah Lake on several occasions prior their disappearance, according to social media posts, Cannon said.