Top 10 public health stories in Utah

It’s time once again for our top 10 public health stories in Utah for 2017.

1. The Utah Department of Health Awarded National Accreditation
In November 2017, the Public Health Accreditation Board (PHAB) awarded national accreditation status to the Utah Department of Health (UDOH). The national accreditation program, jointly supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, sets standards against which the nation’s nearly 3,000 governmental public health departments can continuously improve the quality of their services and performance.

The UDOH is now the fourth nationally accredited public health department in the state, joining health departments from Tooele County, Salt Lake County, and Davis County.

“Our pursuit of national accreditation began years ago and has been a significant undertaking for the entire department,” said UDOH Executive Director Dr. Joseph Miner. “The efforts of public health departments impact every resident every day in the state of Utah. Ultimately, it’s those residents who will benefit from our accreditation status, as the process has helped us identify how we can improve the quality of our services and performance.”

2. CDC Investigation Shows Youth Suicides in Utah Increasing
The Utah Department of Health observed a 141.3% increase in suicides among Utah youth aged 10-17 from 2011 to 2015, compared with an increase of 23.5% nationally. Suicidal ideation and attempts among Utah youth also increased during this time period. As a result, the UDOH requested help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to better understand the factors leading to this increase.

A team of Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers from the CDC was deployed to Utah to conduct an independent epidemiologic investigation, also known as an Epi-Aid, of this urgent public health problem. The Epi-Aid team worked closely with staff at the UDOH to analyze data from seven major data sources to better determine trends, common precipitating factors for suicide, and risk and protective factors for suicidal behaviors unique to Utah youth.

In addition to mental health concerns, family relationship problems, other forms of violence such as bullying at school and electronic bullying, substance use, and psychological distress were common risk factors in youth suicides. However, supportive family, community, and peer environments were protective against suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.

3. Hepatitis A Outbreak
Utah public health officials continue to investigate an outbreak of hepatitis A linked to a national outbreak involving several other states. Between May 1 and December 18, 2017, the number of outbreak-associated cases has grown to 110 individuals. And while previous outbreaks noted hospitalization rates of less than 40%, the hospitalization rate in Utah for this outbreak is approximately 60%. The majority of the outbreak-associated cases in Utah have occurred in people who live along the Wasatch Front and use illicit drugs and/or are experiencing homelessness.
Even though the outbreak has been fairly limited to a specific population, there’s no guarantee it won’t spread. Salt Lake County Health Department (SLCoHD) executive director, Gary Edwards says, “The key to keeping this outbreak from spreading to the general public is in making sure that everyone practices proper hygiene and handwashing.” Toward that end, a team from the Utah Department of Health and the SLCoHD developed a new campaign to help educate the public and limit the spread of disease. The campaign includes a website, online videos, and social media.

4. Families of Teen Crash Victims Share Their Grief
In October 2017, the 10th Teen Memoriam book was published by the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) and Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT). The book shares the stories of teens killed in motor vehicle crashes on Utah roads from the previous year. Over the last 10 years, 285 teens aged 13-19 have died on Utah roads. The lives of 120 of these teens were featured in the memoriam books. The books are used by state and local agencies to help drivers of all ages realize the impact their decisions have on others. The books are also distributed to high school driver education classes throughout the state.

The public was also invited to view an exhibit commemorating the lives of 120 teens killed on Utah roads over the past 10 years. Memorabilia from select teen crash victims and their stories were on display. The exhibit will be at The Shops at South Town in Sandy, Utah through the holiday shopping season.

5. ‘Stop the Opidemic’ Campaign Launches
In January 2017, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) announced the launch of a bold, new campaign, ‘Stop the Opidemic,’ to bring an end to the devastation opioid misuse and addiction has on individuals, families, and communities throughout the state.

“For nearly nine years, I have investigated these deaths and seen first-hand the devastating reality behind Utah’s addiction to opioids,” said Erik Christensen, chief medical examiner with the UDOH. “The hard-hitting messages and imagery used in the ‘Stop the Opidemic’ campaign are designed to educate Utahns on the dangers of opioids, the signs and symptoms of opioid overdoses, and the importance of having naloxone on-hand whenever someone is using an opioid, whether that’s a prescription for pain or an illicit drug.”

Six Utahns die every week from opioid overdoses. In 2015, 268 Utahns died from a prescription opioid overdose (such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, or fentanyl), 127 died from illicit opioids such as heroin, and 10 deaths involved both prescription and illicit opioids; an average of 33 deaths each month (13.5 per 100,000 population). An estimated 80% of heroin users started with prescription drugs. Utah ranks 7th highest in the nation for drug overdose deaths (for the years 2013-2015).

The campaign features testimonials of Utahns who have lost family members to heroin overdoses and who are recovering from prescription opioid and heroin addictions.

6. Utah DMAT-1 responds to Hurricane Harvey
In late August 2017, a team of 36 medical specialists from Utah was deployed to Texas to assist in the response effort to Hurricane Harvey. The team, known as Utah’s DMAT-1 (Disaster Medical Assistance Team), consists of physicians, nurses, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and other medical specialists. The unit is designed to be self-sufficient for 72 hours with supplies including food and medicine. The team’s primary mission is to supplement the medical needs in the areas heavily impacted by the hurricane. The Utah DMAT-1 team was formed 10 years ago and until Hurricane Harvey, had never been deployed as a whole team.

7. Medicaid limited expansion approved by CMS
On November 1, 2017, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approved a waiver allowing Utah to expand Medicaid services to up to approximately 4,000-6,000 Utah adults without dependent children. The expansion was a critical element of Operation Rio Grande, as many of the newly eligible adults are anticipated to be members of the homeless population. The expansion also included authority to use federal funds to provide residential substance abuse treatment services to Medicaid recipients.

Program enrollment opened immediately and to-date the program has enrolled nearly 300 individuals. For more information, please see the program webpage:

8. USDA Recognizes Utah Agencies for Exemplary Support for Breastfeeding Mothers
In August 2017, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognized the Bear River Health Department (BRHD) and Salt Lake County Health Department (SLCoHD) with the Loving Support Awards for Excellence. These prestigious awards were given to Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) agencies with exemplary peer counselor programs which led to an increase in the number of WIC participants who were exclusively breastfeeding at six months – 33.2% for BRHD and 22.7% for SLCoHD compared with the national average of 12.9% in 2015.

The BRHD received the Gold Premiere Award, one of only six across the nation and the first agency in the Mountain Plains WIC Region to receive the award. The SLCoHD was recognized with a Gold Award.

“WIC agencies that use the USDA Loving Support Model program enlist the help of mothers who have had personal experience with breastfeeding and are trained to provide basic breastfeeding support and education to other mothers. These peer counselors are then paired with other mothers based on similar characteristics such as languages spoken, race/ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. This helps ensure information is provided in a socially and culturally sensitive way and promotes breastfeeding as a healthy part of development for both mothers and babies,” said Chris Furner, WIC program manager at the Utah Department of Health.

9. Unified State Laboratory Building Opens
A ribbon cutting ceremony was held on June 1, 2017 to celebrate the opening of the Unified State Laboratory, which includes the Utah Department of Health Office of the Medical Examiner, Utah Department of Public Safety crime lab, and Utah Department of Agriculture and Food labs. Governor Herbert and local dignitaries from Taylorsville City and the Utah State Legislature toured the new facility. The Office of the Medical Examiner plays an important public health function – often serving as the front line for identifying disease outbreaks and other issues that, unfortunately, can have fatal consequences for Utah residents.

Learn more about the new state-of-the-art facility.

10. Utah Jumps to #4 in Healthiest State Rankings
The United Health Foundation 2017 Annual Report of America’s Health Rankings looks at 35 different factors affecting people’s health. Utah had the lowest rates of smoking and cancer deaths in the nation, along with low rates of obesity, physical inactivity, and diabetes. Utah and Florida experienced the largest rank improvements since last year, rising four places respectively.

But there is still work to do. The report also examined the concentration of key health care providers and found Utah had high drug death rates, poor air quality, low immunization rates, and not enough primary care providers to meet the demand.


Honorable mentions from 2017 include:

E. coli Outbreak in Southern Utah
A cluster of E. coli cases was detected by public health officials in late June 2017 in southern Utah near the neighboring cities of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona. Two of the 12 cases were young children who died after developing serious kidney complications (hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS) as a result of the E. coli strain. Staff from the local and state health departments in both states, along with representatives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helped in the investigation. While the source of the outbreak was still uncertain, area residents were advised against consuming ground beef or raw milk, since these foods are known to have a higher risk of harboring E. coli bacteria. Hundreds of samples were collected and tested through the tireless efforts of environmental health scientists, veterinarians, nurses, laboratorians, and epidemiologists, including human, food, environmental, and water samples. The investigation was completed by July 28, 2017. Community leaders and residents were helpful in assisting health officials with all aspects of the investigation, including surveys, focus groups, and case control studies. Ultimately, it was determined that the most likely source of the illness was infected animals, followed by person-to-person contact. Several livestock tested positive for the specific E. coli strain involved in the outbreak.

Asthma Home Visiting Program
The Asthma Home Visiting Program serves families with uncontrolled asthma. The program includes three visits and two phone calls. Currently the program is offered in Salt Lake and Utah Counties. Since inception, over 140 individuals have enrolled in the program.

  • 91% of those that complete visit 1 complete the program (at least 2 of 3 sessions)
  • About 54% of participants in SLC and 30% of participants from Utah Co. are ethnic/racial minorities
  • 81% of participants had an increase in asthma knowledge test scores from pre to post program
  • 79% of participants showed improvement in ACT from visit 1 to visit 3
  • 76% of participants reported increased confidence in managing their asthma from intake to 6-month follow-up

Community Snapshots Available for Utah Small Areas
The Indicator Based Information System for Public Health (IBIS) now has community snapshots available for the Utah Small Areas. The snapshots show data on key health indicators for the small area, including, where applicable, how that area compares to the state.

The Utah Department of Health, Data Resources Program (DRP) receives award
The DRP received the 2017 Public Health Hero “Project” award from Utah Public Health Association for the Web-Enabled Systematic Tracking Tool (aka WESTT) system. The only tool of its kind, this innovative web application reduced delays and complexities associated with the coordination and submission of the annual Maternal & Child Health Block Grant application. The use of WESTT allowed staff to capture and maintain grant information from numerous sources into one single location, thus increasing efficiency and decreasing the amount of time devoted to this effort. WESTT also increased communication and collaboration among contributors by allowing them to edit data and narratives, all within the secure environment.