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HERO Project Study Digs Deeper Into COVID-19 Spread In Utah

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – As the numbers from clinical testing in Utah continue to show the dangerous spread COVID-19, a large scale project is honing in on the true rate of infection.

The Utah HERO Project, launched through the University of Utah in early May, provides a clearer picture of the prevalence of the virus through randomized testing.

HERO stands for Health & Economic Recovery Outreach.

The project is important because it looks beyond the results from clinical testing. So far, according to the field director for the project, it reveals Utah is a population still highly susceptible to the virus.

“It does imply that we have to be thoughtful about the sorts of precautions that we take,” said Dr. Steve Alder, HERO Project field director and professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Family and Preventative Medicine.

He recommended precautions that have been advised since the pandemic arrived in Utah: wearing a mask when we cannot be at least six feet away from each other, washing our hands and regularly disinfecting high touch surfaces.

This study is the first initiative in Utah to try to find out how prevalent COVID-19 is in our state. It’s a collaboration between the David Eccles School of Business, University of Utah Health and the Utah Department of Health.

Clinical testing only shows what’s going on with people who suspect they have COVID-19 and get a test. Alder said HERO Project testing for COVID-19 and antibodies shows more.

“The HERO Project is designed to look at the rest of the picture,” he said. “What is actually going on in communities that we don’t catch through clinical testing?”

Phase 1 of the project tested 8,500 people in Salt Lake, Davis, Utah and Summit counties in May and early June. That four-county area represents about two-thirds of the state’s population.

“We simply were not sure what was taking place in communities,” said Alder. And, they wanted to find out. Through testing in phase 1, they discovered that one-in-100 people showed evidence of prior infection.

“That was actually lower than any of us anticipated,” he said. “But a very good sign for the state of Utah.”

An indicator that the infection rate was lower when Utahns were asked to stay home, but rose as restrictions eased.

The HERO Project also revealed that for every case detected by some other means, there are 2.4 more people infected with undetected COVID-19. That shows that, at least through early June, our state did a pretty good job of limiting the spread.

“We kept the viral activity low,” Alder said. “But that also means that the vast majority of the population has not had the virus. So, it is susceptible to it.”

Phase 2 is now testing in Washington County and other hot spots where they are trying to gather more information about certain populations. Predictably, Alder said, we’ve seen an increase in COVID-19 activity as Utah eased restrictions. The main implications of the study, so far: the virus still has a long-term impact on Utah.

“We have to really think about how to live with this virus,” said Alder. “It’s not going away anytime soon. I think everybody’s coming to that realization.”

HERO Project information should help state health care leaders understand how COVID-19 has spread in Utah and give business leaders the data they need to get people back into the workforce safely.

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