SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 is on a lot of Utahns’ minds and has been since the pandemic hit here in mid-March.
Social isolation, unemployment and worry surrounding the virus itself is putting a damper on the well-being of many Utah residents, but the pandemic has also had some positive effects as well, said Travis Mickelson, mental health integration director with Intermountain Healthcare.
“COVID is having a very real, noticeable effect on our mental health,” he said, adding that the uncertainty and stress of it all has prompted many people to find ways to manage it better.
“A lot of us have developed strategies and routines we’ll want to continue when this is all over,” Mickelson said. But, the chronic stress and uncertain atmosphere have also left more people with symptoms of anxiety and depression, turning to substance use, experiencing domestic violence, and more.
National surveys, Mickelson said, indicate that up to 50% of respondents claim their mental health is worse than it was before the novel coronavirus crept in.
“As humans, our brain is amazingly wired in an amazing way to scan our environment for threats, and if we feel threatened, our brain can start off a massive, very intricate cascade of events that we term our fight or flight response, that is specifically designed to help us escape that threat,” Mickelson said. “These last six months or so, our brains have been dealing with chronic elements of stress ... it seems like we’re in a constant state of fight or flight.”
It’s having an effect on our hormones, the psychiatrist said. People are having harder times managing sugar intake, which can lead to obesity, diabetes and insomnia.
“The fact that we’re exposed to this chronic element of stress always in our system is having very real health problems,” Mickelson said, adding that many of these effects already existed for Black and Latino populations, which experience various cultural and social stressors on a daily basis, making them more prone to severe complications from COVID-19.
Excessive consumption of news and media — including social media, he said — can make some people feel more uncertain and more threatened. Mickelson stressed the need to seek out reputable sources and “fight the fear of uncertainty by answering questions with accurate information.”
The Utah Department of Health, University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare have collaborated to offer a free emotional relief hotline for anyone who needs mental health support related to COVID-19, and there’s been a steady flow of incoming calls.
Professionals have fielded more than 3,500 calls since the hotline became available in early April, with hundreds of calls coming in each week, said Mickelson, who admitted that mental health resources aren’t always easy for the public to navigate.
One of the “silver linings” of the pandemic, he added, has been the successful expansion of video networking — for all of Intermountain’s providers to have the capability to reach patients both in and outside of Utah, providing appropriate resources to anyone in need.
The health department on Wednesday reported an additional 338 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Utah, bringing the state’s total number of known infections to 45,090. The agency estimates that more than 35,311 of those cases have recovered.
An additional 2,660 people in Utah were tested for the novel coronavirus since Tuesday’s report, meaning that at least 581,209 people have been tested so far.
The rolling seven-day average is now 389 new cases per day, with an average testing positivity rate of 8.6% in the last seven days.
A week ago, after the average daily number of new cases dropped below 500, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert challenged Utahns to continue to get below 400 before Sept. 1.
In addition to the new cases, the health department reported two new deaths caused by the novel coronavirus — two Salt Lake County men, both between the ages of 45 for 64, one of whom was living in a long-term health care facility at the time of his death, and the other who was hospitalized.
There are 200 people currently hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, 79 of which are in intensive care units.
Health systems and state leaders are anticipating increasing case numbers with schools opening in the coming weeks, though time will tell.
Mickelson said that effective management of stress involves focusing on “what we do and don’t have control over” and “weighing the pros and cons that are specific to our family.”
“We have complete control over our behavior — wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and washing our hands,” he said, adding that recent data from Salt Lake County, where a mask mandate is in effect, shows that it works to decrease transmission of disease.
Even knowing that, he said, people will struggle and become anxious.
Understanding the bigger picture, Mickelson added, can help alleviate some of the polarity that wearing a mask has caused in society.
“We all care about others and want to be safe. We all want our families to be safe. We all want our schools to stay open,” he said.
It is also important, Mickelson said, for people to know they are not alone in feeling like the past months have been hard. There shouldn’t be any shame or stigma in reaching out for help.
The free emotional health relief hotline is available by calling 833-442-2211. It is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
“As humans, we absolutely will be able to get through this. We are amazingly resilient and we are designed to survive,” he said.
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 21,034; 1,371 hospitalized; 202 deaths.
- Utah County, 8,983; 422 hospitalized; 37 deaths.
- Davis County, 3,294; 186 hospitalized; 21 deaths.
- Southwest Utah, 3,248; 184 hospitalized; 26 deaths.
- Weber-Morgan, 2,912; 186 hospitalized; 25 deaths.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 2,349; 109 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
- Summit County, 717; 53 hospitalized; 1 death.
- San Juan County, 650; 87 hospitalized; 25 deaths.
- Tooele County, 588; 30 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Wasatch County, 583; 22 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
- Central Utah, 437; 25 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 181; 14 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Southeast Utah, 114; 7 hospitalized; 1 death.