SALT LAKE CITY — Another record-high number of new COVID-19 cases was reported on Thursday — 1,501.
The state also surpassed 500 deaths Thursday, with five more fatalities from the disease announced by the Utah Department of Health.
And hospitals are filling up.
“We are maximizing the system,” said Dr. Emily Spivak, associate professor of infectious disease at University of Utah Health. “It is a marker of things getting worse.”
She said University of Utah Hospital’s intensive care unit was at 95% capacity on Thursday. The system can turn other beds into ICU beds, as would be necessary statewide as cases grow, but there is limited staffing available to critically treat people in ICUs.
In Utah, 237 people are now hospitalized with COVID-19, up from 226 on Wednesday and 208 on Tuesday. It’s almost doubled since a month ago, when around 115 people with the virus were being treated at hospitals across the state.
Intermountain Healthcare has begun what it calls “load-leveling,” which means transferring patients to hospitals where beds are available, as some locations are more limited than others, said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician with the Utah-based health system.
“Right now, we’re managing, but there is nothing business as usual about this,” he said, adding that hospitals still have other types of patients to care for as well.
“We are seeing a strain on our health care providers and health care systems throughout the state,” said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.
She said it has been a month since cases started spiking and disease is now spreading among all age groups.
Dunn did say that numbers in Utah County seem to be leveling off, after the region’s new cases accounted for 40% of the state’s total in weeks past. Now 30% of all new cases in Utah have been detected in Utah County, she said, adding that mitigation efforts put into place — including mask mandates and limiting gathering sizes — have made a difference.
“This is an example of the success we can have when we come together as a community with a combined focus,” Dunn said.
She applauded the decisions of county and local officials who changed policies that, in turn, “reignited their commitment to stop unnecessary illness and death — and this has worked.”
Spivak became emotional sharing the experiences of front-line workers, pleading with the public to wear a mask, even outdoors and with people who have seemed comfortable enough not to.
“Wearing a mask makes a huge difference,” she said. “It is a fact, they work and they are safe.”
If people continue to choose not to wear a mask, Spivak said citizens will be forced to continue the same discussion over and over, leading to further lockdowns, closure of more schools, even more canceled events and continued devastation of people’s lives and livelihood.
“Over 500 Utah families have lost a loved one to this disease,” Spivak said, adding that countless others have experienced economic hardship, having children struggle to succeed in remote learning situations, and being separated from extended family for the foreseeable future.
“The longer our community fails to wear masks and treat one another with respect, the longer we will face these challenges,” she said.
Of the five new deaths reported Thursday, three are in Salt Lake County, including one woman over age 85, and a man between 65 and 84 years of age, who were both residents at long-term health care facilities, as well as another man, between the ages of 45 and 64 who was not hospitalized at the time of his death.
Other deaths include a Davis County man older than 85 who was not hospitalized when he died; and a Washington County man between age 65 and 84 who was a resident at a long-term health care facility when he died.
The state’s death toll from COVID-19 is now at 501.
There have been 81,947 people who have had confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah, the health department reports.
“This isn’t ending anytime soon,” Stenehjem said. “It’s really taxing for all of us involved in it. We’ll keep going, but help us out. Do this for us as well.”
He said wearing a mask and limiting social contacts will also help reduce other viral infections, such as influenza.
In addition to the 1,501 new cases reported on Thursday, another 10,582 people in Utah have been tested for COVID-19, bringing the total number of people tested since mid-March, when the pandemic hit Utah, to 892,022.
The rolling seven-day average number of daily new cases is now 1,114 and the average percent of positive test results is 13.7%.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said none of the states has found a solution to control COVID-19, but everyone in every state can do something to help. He reiterated his weekly plea for people to choose to do the right thing on their own, to help neighbors, including people they don’t know, by wearing a mask.
“We are an optimistic, hopeful and happy people,” Herbert said during his weekly COVID-19 briefing. He said frustration, finger-pointing and criticism isn’t helping and called for it to stop.
“We ought to say to ourselves, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ And all be a part of the solution and not part of the problem,” he said. “We should be united in our effort, finding ways to work together, instead of being a hindrance to solving the problem.”
Herbert said he is waiting to make a decision on a request from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall to move the city back to orange to signal concern for the rising number of cases there and throughout the state. An orange or moderate restriction level, which is what was dictated recently in Provo and Orem, limits gathering sizes and puts continued importance on wearing a mask wherever social distancing isn’t possible.
Besides Utah County, masks are already mandated throughout Salt Lake County, as well as in Summit and Grand counties, Logan and Springdale.
“We’re really disheartened,” Stenehjem said, adding that makeshift hospitals will be necessary should Utah have a bad year with influenza. “We don’t see things changing. We need to do something different if we want a different result.”
Herbert once again said he is reluctant to enact a statewide mask mandate. He said the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business is helping to study the effectiveness of such orders.
“We need to keep doing what works and change what is not working,” the governor said, reiterating the need for local control on issues such as community wellness.
Spivak said hospitals and physicians are learning how to better treat COVID-19, resulting in a lower death rate here than in many other states. But she said “mortality and death are not the only marker” of how well we’re doing.
“The disease is altering and devastating everybody’s lives,” she said.
“People are very tired.”
A breakdown of new cases reported Thursday by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 552
- Utah County, 444
- Davis County, 183
- Weber-Morgan, 123
- Bear River, 108
- Southeast Utah, 31
- Southwest Utah, 29
- Tooele County, 25
- Central Utah, 15
- Summit County, 12
- Wasatch County, 10
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 8
- San Juan County, 1