SALT LAKE CITY — Hospitals have given 11,380 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in Utah, with thousands more ready to be administered, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The state is moving through front-line health care workers and anyone who comes in contact with COVID-19-positive patients on a regular basis, as well as residents and staff at hard-hit long-term health care facilities before it then plans to offer the vaccine to teachers, first responders and other high-risk workers.

“There truly is a light at the end of this tunnel,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician. He said the end “is still a ways away” but “we will get there.”

“People know what to do. People are tired and sick of this — I am, too,” Stenehjem said. “But we know what to do and what works and it’s such a better position than we’ve been before.”

Depending on Operation Warp Speed and the vaccination manufacturing and delivery processes, the doctor said, “We’ll hopefully look back at this time in four months and reflect upon it.”

Stenehjem said he’s thrilled so many health care workers in Utah have received the vaccine in a little more than the week that it has been available. And he’s noticed a difference among colleagues at Intermountain’s intensive care units.

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician, speaks during an online press conference on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. | Zoom

“The mood is a bit lighter,” he said. “We all felt safe in our personal protective equipment, but now that we’ve been vaccinated, or most of us have been vaccinated, that gives us more of a feeling of safety.”

The health department reported another 2,612 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, days before one of the biggest holidays of the year. The state also saw 24 more deaths from the novel coronavirus.

Health officials have urged Utahns not to gather in large groups with people outside of their households, as well as to continue practicing safe social distancing and wear masks, as a statewide mask mandate remains in effect. All but three counties in Utah are still experiencing high risks of disease transmission, and hospitals — specifically ICUs — are running very near full capacity throughout the state, leaving little room for much of an increase.

The number of new infections of COVID-19 has started to trend downward, but health officials and doctors don’t want people to get complacent and ignore safety protocols.

Even with a vaccine rolling out, they worry about a large spike in cases after the holidays. Colder weather is also likely still to come, which means more gathering indoors.

A bigger surge in cases did not occur in Utah following the Thanksgiving holiday, likely due to continued warnings and official recommendations put in place to keep gatherings more intimate this year. And people adhered to those public health measures, Stenehjem said.

Despite public health guidance, the cases are still coming.

And the death toll is still rising, up to 1,196 statewide since the pandemic began, according to the health department. Victims listed in Wednesday’s report include 14 women and 10 men of varying ages and mostly from parts of northern Utah.

Among the newly reported fatalities are four Salt Lake County women between the ages of 65 and 84 who were hospitalized when they died; two Utah County women between 65 and 84, who were long-term health care facility residents; two Salt Lake County women older than 85 who were also residents at long-term health care facilities; a Salt Lake County woman older than 85 who was hospitalized; a Weber County woman older than 85 who was a long-term health care facility resident; a Tooele County woman between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized; a Morgan County woman between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized; a Sanpete County woman between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized; and a Weber County woman between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized.

It also includes three Salt Lake County men between 65 and 84 who were hospitalized; two Utah County men between 65 and 84 who were hospitalized; a Salt Lake County man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized; a Davis County man older than 85 who was a resident at a long-term health care facility; a Weber County man older than 85 who was also a long-term health care facility resident; a Salt Lake County man older than 85 who was hospitalized; and a Weber County man between 45 and 64 who was also hospitalized.

Stenehjem said hospitalizations, as well as reported deaths, are lagging numbers, in that they happen in the weeks following a surge, as the disease is passed from people who get it in public and take it home to those more vulnerable.

More widespread testing, he said, would help, but won’t be available until testing supplies become more prevalent.

The state’s various health care systems, as well as TestUtah.com, have tested nearly 1.7 million people for SARS-CoV-2, the first cases of which turned up about a year ago in central China. Since then, 257,697 Utahns have tested positive with the virus.

Utah’s average number of positive tests per day is now at 2,419, less than it was a week ago. The average percent of positive tests over the past seven days is 23.7%, which is also lower than it has been for some time. The daily rate, however, is 27.2%, which is what it has been for at least the last few days.

And Intermountain reported its ICUs are at 92% capacity.

The health department reported on Wednesday that 560 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout Utah. Stenehjem said it would be more ideal to have fewer people hospitalized, especially going into the holidays.

“Fingers crossed that Utahns come together like we did at Thanksgiving,” he said. Following that holiday, Stenehjem said physicians and nurses experienced “some really sad stories” in the hospital, including having a grandma and grandpa admitted following a family gathering for Thanksgiving.

“It’s tragic to see,” he said, adding that it could’ve been worse had people not heeded the state’s advice.

While fewer than 1% have died from the disease in Utah, many more have experienced unpleasant complications resulting from contracting COVID-19, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said. He said little is known about the rampant disease and taking care of oneself, family and friends should be a top priority.

The governor, however, has balanced that with keeping the economy open and business as close to usual as possible.

New COVID-19 cases reported on Wednesday by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 776
  • Utah County, 557
  • Davis County, 296
  • Southwest Utah, 267
  • Weber-Morgan, 238
  • Bear River, 153
  • Central Utah, 264
  • Wasatch County, 39
  • Summit County, 34
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 30
  • Tooele County, 24
  • Southeast Utah, 17
  • San Juan County, 17

COVID-19 testing clinics will have reduced hours, closing early on Christmas Eve and will be closed on Christmas Day. The health department will not report COVID-19-related statistics on Christmas Day.

Intermountain Healthcare operates a free emotional health relief hotline from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week and it is accessible by calling 833-442-2211.

For more information about the novel coronavirus, testing and current public health measures in Utah, visit coronavirus.utah.gov.