Following the announcement of five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah, including two Utah Jazz basketball players, the Utah Coronavirus Task Force held a one-hour press conference outlining recommendations and state-wide actions being taken to help prevent the spread of infection.

The task force is recommending that mass gatherings be limited to groups of 100 healthy individuals or 20 individuals if they have prior health concerns or are over the age of 60 years old. This precaution should begin March 16 and includes church meetings, concerts and lectures series. It does not, however, apply to schools at the moment.

Sick individuals are highly encouraged to stay home and employees should state telecommuting immediately. Additionally, the state is working with care centers and hospitals to tighten the restrictions on visitors’ access.

These recommendations will be in effect for the next two weeks, Herbert said, but officials will re-evaluate to see if they want to continue, modify or go in a different direction as necessary.

Since its establishment a week ago, the task force, which expected to meet once a week to evaluate international coronavirus news and make recommendations, has meet five times.

Since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Utah earlier this month, the number of cases has grown to five, and all cases are linked to travel, state physician Angela Dunn said,

“We are not seeing community spread of the virus, but we do know the spread is going to occur, so we are taking significant action here to amplify what we’ve been doing,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said during the conference. “It’s better to be too early than it is to be too late.”

Herbert announced the task force’s recommendations, which are in addition to the “common sense” precautions laid out earlier this week, including consistently keeping hands clean and not touching areas like the face, mouth, eyes or nose.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said these recommendations are meant to slow down the spread of COVID-19 in order to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system.

“If everyone gets the virus in a short amount of time, we will fill the hospital beds that are empty,” he said

School response

Early Thursday afternoon, several Utah System of Higher Education institutions has announced the closing of their campuses. Most, if not all, classes — including at University of Utah, Utah State University and Utah Valley University — will be held online for the remainder of the semester.

Brigham Young University has also canceled classes for the remainder of this week and announced earlier Thursday that all athletic events held on its campus will be closed to the public, effective immediately. Only players, coaches and essential staff will be allowed to attend. BYU Athletics will provide updates as more information becomes available.

Schools operating within the Murray School District have also announced the indefinite closure of classes after the district became aware of a potential direct contact exposure to COVID-19.

Students and teachers immediately surrounding the possibly infected person have not exhibited signs or symptoms, however, the district said it is practicing an abundance of caution to maintain the health and safety of its patrons.

Superintendent of the Utah State Board of Education Sydney Dickson told residents during the press conference that no decision has been made to close schools statewide, but this could change in the near future.

Ultimately, she said, the decision to close schools is up to the individual districts. The continued operation of schools statewide, however, will be re-evaluated as necessary.

Virus testing

Outside of the recommendations, state officials are working to expand testing. Right now, officials are only testing residents with prior health conditions and those who have come into contact with confirmed cases, as that is all they are able to do as getting supplies has been a slow process, Cox said.

Cox told conference attendees and online viewers that 136 residents had been tested in a state laboratory as of 10:40 a.m. Thursday.

Additionally, the Center for Disease Control has tested 18 Utah residents since the first case was confirmed, and private labs across the state are also testing samples. University of Utah labs tested 100 individuals on Wednesday, as well.

State health officials are working with Intermountain Healthcare, who is in the process of getting their coronavirus tests certified, to increase the number of residents being tested. After successful certification, he said, testing will increase into the hundreds each day.

While health officials are working to expand drive-thru testing options, Intermountain Healthcare has sponsored two drive-up testing sites in Salt Lake City and Cottonwood Heights. The University of Utah has also established drive-up testing locations.

“We’re not making these decisions today because things are really bad,” Cox said. “We’re making these decisions before things get really bad.”

COVID-19 has an Incubation period of two to 14 days and is spread through coughing or sneezing. People with extensive history of travel or who have been within six feet of an infected person for more than 20 minutes are at risk for infection. There are currently no vaccines or effective medications available as this is a new strain.

As of Wednesday, COVID-19 has officially be declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Individuals showing symptoms or who have been in contact with someone showing symptoms are encouraged to self quarantine for a period of 14 days.

People infected with COVID-19 could experience a dry cough, fever and difficulty breathing, and in rare cases might also have runny noses and sore throats. Some individuals might not experience any symptoms.

Individuals who believe they are experiencing COVID-19 should call their primary healthcare physicians or use telemedical technology to get more information.