Moab Regional Hospital and the Southeast Utah Health Department are urging community members to be tested for COVID-19 even if they only have mild symptoms. [Photo by Maggie McGuire / Moab Sun News]

The Southeast Utah Health Department confirmed an additional positive test for COVID-19 in Grand County on the evening of May 4, after announcing earlier in the day that three previous positive cases were declared “recovered.”

Brittney Garff, the health department’s public information officer, reports that the case “is currently being investigated and anybody who is deemed a close contact and at risk due to this individual will be contacted directly by the Southeast Utah Health Department.”

Sources told the Moab Sun News that 15 to 20 people had been swabbed for a COVID-19 test as part of contact tracing in the case. The Southeast Utah Health Department estimates that over 1,300 tests have been conducted in Grand, Emery and Carbon counties, with 16 positive cases as of May 4.

In concert with Moab Regional Hospital, the department announced a greater emphasis on testing in the region. The statement, released May 1, outlines the hospital and health department’s strategy for widespread testing for COVID-19, tying its necessity directly to any increase in tourism or travel to the area.

“Expanded testing is a key component of safely transitioning from social distancing and sheltering-in-place to opening our community up to broader economic activity, including tourism,” said MRH Community Relations Director Christy Calvin.

“In order to enable our community to transition towards a gradual increase in visitation and economic activity while retaining our ability to respond to and contain COVID-19 disease transmission, we must achieve widespread testing of all symptomatic persons and asymptomatic screening among individuals at high risk of exposure to COVID-19,” the statement, signed by MRH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dylan Cole and SEUHD Director Bradon Bradford, reads.

As part of the strategy, community members are being encouraged to seek testing for even one mild symptom on a broad list including fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, chest pressure, headache, gastrointestinal distress (vomiting or diarrhea), sore throat, muscle aches, loss of taste or smell, frequent sneezing, and/or allergy symptoms.

While there were shortages of tests and restrictive guidelines early in the pandemic’s spread, COVID-19 tests are now readily available in the area and are covered by medical insurance. Uninsured patients will be provided free testing at MRH through federal funding.

“By getting tested, even if an individual does not themselves require medical attention, they are helping to protect their family, friends, co-workers, and the broader community by helping reduce further transmission,” said the statement.

A point of concern for the further spread of the coronavirus is the role of “silent spreaders,” those who do not appear ill but can infect others with the virus. While research into the coronavirus is ongoing, the number of these asymptomatic people in transmitting the disease is thought to be crucial.

The testing strategy addresses this issue by recommending healthcare workers, grocery store employees, retirement home aides and others in “High-Risk Settings” be periodically screened for COVID-19 regardless of whether they show symptoms.

Testing important across country

This emphasis on testing is crucial as physical distancing measures across the country are being relaxed, experts say.

“Experience from past pandemics, especially the 1918 influenza pandemic, shows that when social distancing measures are lifted, a resurgence in cases follows,” said Stephen Kissler, a Fellow in Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“If we are able to conduct widespread testing, we will be able to monitor the prevalence of illness,” said Kissler.

Without testing, the first sign of a new outbreak would be seriously ill patients arriving at the hospital.

“This will be too late; we will run the risk of overshooting our hospital capacity, since cases arriving to the hospital reflect transmission that happened 1-2 weeks before,” he said.

“Moab Regional Hospital is in a much better position now to face coronavirus than we were two months ago and we are so grateful to the sacrifices made by local businesses and individuals to keep our community safe,” said Calvin in an email to the Moab Sun News.

“Widespread testing is the next step we need to take to keep our community safe,” she said.

Individuals that would like to be tested should call the Moab Regional Hospital Coronavirus Hotline at 435-719-3998 to set up an appointment.

Hospital, Health Department ramp up testing

“Moab Regional Hospital is in a much better position now to face coronavirus than we were two months ago and we are so grateful to the sacrifices made by local businesses and individuals to keep our community safe.”

– Christy Calvin, Moab Regional Hospital Community Relations Director