SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 cases in Utah squashed yet another record Thursday, with 3,919 positive cases reported.
That’s a whopping 932 more coronavirus cases than the last record-breaking day last week on Nov. 6 when 2,987 cases were reported. It brings the total number of known infections in Utah to 143,639 since the pandemic began.
“We are at the breaking point and ready to have some serious repercussions,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said.
The ever-increasing numbers, he said during his weekly COVID-19 briefing, are not unexpected with the ongoing trends but “should cause all of us concern.”
The state is experiencing an average 2,738 new cases daily — with a now 23.2% test positivity rating.
“Our spread is outpacing our ability to test,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health.
She said more people, particularly those who are not experiencing symptoms, need to be tested but nationwide shortages of rapid testing supplies is limiting the number of people who can be tested in Utah.
The current public health order requires testing Utah’s on-campus college students, who are part of a group that has consistently had the highest levels of disease transmission, likely due to increased and unprotected social interactions, the governor said.
Utah is four days into a new State of Emergency, which began Monday and will hopefully serve as “a pause,” Herbert said, in order to slow the spread of disease in Utah. The public health order was updated on Thursday to provide permission for child custody and visitation circumstances and at-home child care, as well as business services provided at home.
Herbert said he wants to be testing 250,000 people in Utah each week, and the state is halfway there.
“We need to find the asymptomatic people and isolate them before they infect others,” he said, pleading with citizens to follow the mask mandate and stay home as much as possible — at least until Nov. 23, when the current public health orders are set to expire.
Another 13,926 people were tested since Wednesday, with more than a third of the state’s population having been tested since March. The state health department also reported an additional nine new deaths, bringing Utah’s COVID-19 death toll to 687 lives lost.
“We do need to stop this alarming trend,” Herbert said.
‘COVID-19 is real’
The new statewide mask mandate, as well as increased testing and a “social pause,” are necessary to deal with this public health issue, said Utah Hospital Association President and CEO Greg Bell. He said hospitals are already transferring patients where there is room, but are dangerously close to having to operate on crisis care levels.
And, he said, ICUs are already there.
“We have some capacity, still treating all comers ... if we keep admitting 90 to 100 patients a day, we just can’t handle that, certainly not in the ICU,” Bell said.
Lance Madigan, spokesman at Intermountain Healthcare’s Utah Valley Hospital, said staff there have fielded phone calls and dealt with people “without a medical need who have attempted to gain physical access to the facility with the intent to try to confirm fake conspiracy theories — such as hospitals are not busy and that reports of the COVID-19 surge are false.”
He said these actions “divert attention from providing lifesaving care.”
“COVID-19 is real and the hospital is seeing large increases in patients with the virus. Staff are stretched and are working many extra hours to meet community needs,” Madigan said. “We ask the public to join with us, mask up, wash hands, social distance and stay home when sick so we can care overcome the challenges of this pandemic in our communities.”
As COVID-19 cases continue to surge and hospitals reach capacity throughout Utah, Intermountain Healthcare has hired additional help and has welcomed volunteers from New York City.
“In the last few weeks, we’ve had to use part of the plan we hoped to never have to use,” Dr. Katie Thomas, associate medical director at Intermountain Medical Center, said Thursday. The health system is already transferring patients to where there is space and staff available.
“There are limits, as we know, to what our current staff can handle,” Thomas said. “Beds don’t take care of people, people do. Staffing has been a struggle.”
Intermountain has hired 190 traveling nurses to assist staff while patient numbers and needs increase. Another 31 nurses are returning the favor of Intermountain staff who went to New York when the need was greatest there and hospitals couldn’t handle the surges of COVID-19 patients in April.
“Our nurses can relate to the stress and fear of an impending COVID surge,” said Natalie Torrance, a nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, which is a nonprofit health system similar to Intermountain.
Lasting friendships and collaborations forged between the two systems during this ongoing pandemic is a “silver lining,” she said, adding that the “support of your community here is absolutely vital.”
“Please do what we know is working. Wear your mask, wash your hands, stay socially distanced,” Hallie Rector, a nurse facilitator at LDS Hospital, said Thursday. “I know that with the holidays, we want to be around our friends and families at this time ... but we just really need to think about how this is impacting everyone.”
She added, “Take the moment to do the right thing and protect the caregiver and your family.”
Rector said the arrival of new nurses has “lifted our spirits,” and while the demand is still more than what is ideal, she said, “We will take care of our patients.”
“A battle is easier won together,” said Wen Hui Xiao, another nurse at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital who is in Utah to assist with the growing number of COVID-19 patients. She said the experience has given her “a new perspective and refreshed sense of passion for my job.”
“It’s a whole new experience for everybody,” Xiao said. “They’re scared. They’re anxious and they don’t understand what’s going on. I was scared, too, because we haven’t ever seen anything like this, to this acuity and this capacity.”
Act like athletes
There are 468 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized throughout Utah, an increase of 22 patients since Wednesday, and 182 patients are in intensive care units fighting the disease.
Dunn said referral hospitals are now operating at 87.5% capacity. The virus, she said, is spreading across all demographics in Utah, and not just one particular age range or group.
“Our only hope for slowing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting our hospitals is if each of us wears a mask more than we’re doing it now,” Dunn said, adding that the current public health order limits social interactions to people only in the same household.
In anticipation of the upcoming high school football playoffs in Utah, the state tested 1,360 athletes, cheerleaders and others and identified only 49 cases, or a 3.6% positivity rate. Dunn said these athletes are “taking precautions very seriously” because they really want to be able to perform on the field.
“I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but we all need to start acting like high school athletes,” Dunn said. “You need to find that thing that you care about as much as these athletes care about football, cheer and drill.”
She said it will take time to see an impact on case counts resulting from the most recent set of recommendations, but she hopes the people of Utah can work together to turn things around.
COVID-19 is being treated at every hospital in the state, with many ICUs fast approaching their breaking points. Health systems are opening new beds in other areas of hospitals and preparing for expansion elsewhere, if and when that is needed, Thomas told members of the media.
“We are taking care of our patients, we’re just doing it in a creative way,” she said. “Everyone is having to do things differently throughout the state.”
Thomas publicly thanked Utahns who “are doing everything they can” to stop the spread of disease in their communities.
“Without that part of the population, I don’t know where we’d be right now,” she said. “If the population that is not masking up and social distancing doesn’t start, I’m very fearful of where we will be in a couple months.”
Herbert said recommendations regarding gathering for upcoming holiday celebrations will be forthcoming, but it will come down to weighing the risks.
Nine new deaths
Nine new deaths were reported Thursday, including deaths in Davis, Salt Lake, Sevier, Uintah, Utah and Weber counties. This brings the total number of Utahns to die from COVID complications to 687.
The nine deaths were:
· Male, older than 85, Davis County resident, long-term care facility resident
· Male, between 65-84, Salt Lake County resident, hospitalized at time of death
· Male, between 45-64, Salt Lake County resident, not hospitalized at time of death
· Female, older than 85, Salt Lake County resident, long-term care facility resident
· Male, between 65-84, Sevier County resident, hospitalized at time of death
· Female, between 65-84, Uintah County resident, hospitalized at time of death
· Female, older than 85, Utah County resident, not hospitalized at time of death
· Male, between 45-64, Utah County resident, hospitalized at time of death
· Female, between 65-84, Weber County resident, hospitalized at time of death
Thursday evening, the Department of Corrections posted a statement on its Facebook page and the state’s Coronavirus website announcing the death of a 70-year-old male inmate who had COVID-19 at the time of his death. The release said the man died on Nov. 11, and he was in a hospital when he died. He is the second inmate to die with COVID-related complications.
“Before being hospitalized the incarcerated individual was housed and receiving treatment at the Oquirrh 5 facility where he tested positive for COVID-19 on November 4,” the statement said. “The incarcerated individual did have several complicating comorbidities that may have contributed to his death. The family of the incarcerated individual has been notified. The cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner.”
The prison currently has 621 active cases of COVID-19 between the facilities in Draper and the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. There are also active cases at several community correctional centers and more than 30 cases among staff. Approximately 70 staff have recovered from COVID-19, according to the Department’s website.
New COVID-19 cases reported on Thursday by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 1,366
- Utah County, 1,116
- Southwest Utah, 311
- Weber-Morgan, 275
- Davis County, 237
- Bear River, 188
- Central Utah, 122
- Wasatch County, 55
- Tooele County, 48
- Southeast Utah, 35
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 33
- Summit County, 30
- San Juan County, 3