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Utah’s COVID-19 death toll could double in 10 weeks, projections say

Difficult months ahead, experts say, but better mask-wearing could save 500 lives

Jeremy Jipson wears a mask his mother made for him while waiting at a bus stop in Murray on Monday, April 13, 2020. “We’re clean homeless,” Jipson said. He said he’s been wearing gloves, a mask, using hand sanitizer and washing his hands regularly amid the COIVD-19 pandemic.
Jeremy Jipson wears a mask his mother made for him while waiting at a bus stop in Murray on Monday, April 13, 2020. “We’re clean homeless,” Jipson said. He said he’s been wearing gloves, a mask, using hand sanitizer and washing his hands regularly amid the COIVD-19 pandemic.
Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

The number of Utahns who’ve died from COVID-19 exceeded the 1,000-mark Thursday, just two months after 500 deaths were reported.

Even with a vaccine, that total is projected to double again in less than 10 weeks, to 2,000 deaths in the state.

By April, Utah’s death toll is expected to rise to more than 2,500, according to the latest projections by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. But the number of victims of the deadly coronavirus could be held to just over 2,000 if nearly all Utahns wore face masks.

“In your state, you could save over 500 deaths just by wearing a mask between now and then,” said Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist and chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington.

“Five hundred deaths are a lot. These are moms, dads, sons, daughters, loved ones, friends.”

The institute adjusted its state-by-state projections downward Thursday, based on published studies showing the first vaccine likely to be approved as soon as this week for distribution in the United States is 50% effective after only one of two required doses and the promise that even more doses may be available.

If Utahns continue their current behavior — which includes 72% wearing masks to stop the spread of the virus, along with getting the vaccine as it becomes available — the number of projected deaths by April 1 now falls from 2,884 to 2,537, Mokdad said Thursday.

But if 95% of Utahns are wearing masks, that projected number would drop to 2,056.

Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday that Utah will initially receive more than 154,000 doses of the vaccine, including 23,400 doses within 24 hours of federal approval. That first phase of the vaccine is going to front-line medical workers as well as teachers, the governor said.

A vaccine is not likely to be widely available until the spring, and Mokdad said it will take until May or June to see its full impact on the pandemic. In the meantime, he urged vigilance because the worst may be yet to come.

Thursday, Utah reported 21 new deaths from COVID-19, just five fewer than the record of 26 deaths reported on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, for a total of 1,016 deaths since the pandemic began in March. On Wednesday, the United States reported 3,054 deaths nationwide, the highest single-day total.

“My message for Utah is January all the way through the first week of February is going to be a very difficult month, with an increased number of cases and an increased number of daily deaths,” Mokdad said. “Vaccines are coming. They’re not going to help us in January,” because the rollout will just be getting underway.

Dr. Sam Finlayson, chief clinical officer for University of Utah Health, also expects tough times ahead.

“The calling card of an epidemic is that they tend to accelerate until they don’t,” Finlayson said, adding that although exponential growth in the number of deaths is expected, it can be slowed by taking precautions to help stop the spread of the deadly virus.

“We need to wear masks, keep distance, don’t gather in crowds. We do that sometimes, but to really slow this down, we have to do it a lot more than we are now,” Finlayson said. “There’s no magic here. There’s a direct connection between human behavior and the propagation of the virus.”

He’s concerned that despite the state’s latest grim milestone, Utahns won’t step up their efforts against the virus.

“The exponential curve is what happens if you don’t do something to stop it,” Finlayson said, noting the state didn’t have to reach 1,000 deaths as soon as it did. “I would say at this point, we’re not doing that well. And to turn it around, everybody’s got to dig in a little bit harder and be a little more careful. Not fearful, but careful.”

Utah state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, asked whether she saw the state reaching 1,000 deaths when the virus first struck nine months ago, said, “I don’t know that I ever actually thought about it, right, because you’re just trying to prevent as much as possible.”

Dunn attributed the increased deaths to the November surge in cases, which slowed after the governor instituted a two-week ban on social gatherings that ended just before Thanksgiving. Usually, hospitalizations go up 10 to 14 days after a surge, and a rise in deaths hits in another week or so.

“So this isn’t unexpected,” Dunn told the Deseret News, adding that she is encouraged that the number of cases isn’t much higher than the 3,401 reported Thursday. “I was anticipating a huge surge after Thanksgiving. I mean, we all were. It hasn’t happened, which is fantastic.”

She said it shows “the vast majority of Utahns” are following recommendations, even though “of course, there are going to be outliers of people who are not wanting to adhere to public health guidance, and gathering with lots of people outside their households just for show.”

But Dunn said she is worried Utahns won’t continue to hunker down now that the surge is past.

“The cases drive a lot of human behavior. So I’m hoping this lack of surge doesn’t translate into complacency over the December holidays. Make no mistakes, 2,000 to 3,000 cases a day is above our capacity as a state,” she said, with the ability to treat COVID-19 patients maxing out at around 1,000 cases a day.

“I hope people don’t see this as, ‘Oh, it’s no big deal. Let’s just have everybody over for Christmas.’ I think we really just need to press upon people, one more holiday that’s not normal. Please. Just give me December and New Year’s,” Dunn said.

She said the University of Washington’s modeling is useful as a worst-case scenario and while the state doesn’t project deaths, about 1% of the Utahns who get COVID-19 are expected to die. So cutting down the number of cases from current levels to below 1,000 will save lives, Dunn said.

Greg Bell, Utah Hospital Association president and CEO, said too often the deaths don’t have the same impact on the public as other mass casualty events, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States that killed 2,977 people — fewer than the number of people who died across the nation from COVID-19 on Wednesday alone.

“This is not a tragedy that plays out in the public view. People die and suffer individually, at home and in hospitals and in different settings like skilled nursing facilities. It’s not a massive event like 9/11 or a huge chain car accident or some tragedy, like an airline crash. The impact of these deaths is less,” Bell said.

He said he’s grateful the state’s mortality rate for COVID-19 is lower than other states “but that’s cold comfort to the families that have lost loved ones.” The same is true for health care workers at hospitals stretched beyond capacity, caring for patients who can’t be comforted directly by their loved ones.

“The patient and the family have this horrible ordeal,” Bell said. “We’re facilitating the emotional support, the contact with family. Then you have the sadness and tragedy of health care works losing patients. Now, it’s not one or two or three. It’s over 20 a day.”