SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 is once again threatening the care that hospitals can provide throughout Utah, as the rampant disease has stretched capacities beyond their limits.

Another 4,597 new cases — the state’s second-highest daily total of the pandemic — were reported in Utah on Thursday, along with 29 new deaths resulting from the disease. Health officials, however, said 17 of those deaths occurred before Dec. 20, but there were delays in reporting them.

With more than 56 people admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 this week, it is clear that a post-holiday surge has begun.

“We’re definitely seeing more cases detected across the state,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare. He said Utah’s current 32.71% test positivity level is “one of the highest in the nation.”

It means that “community transmission is sky high” and “we’re probably undertesting,” Stenehjem said Thursday during Intermountain’s weekly COVID-19 update on social media.

He confirmed a COVID-19 surge is in full swing, with increases in statewide transmission every day this week. Stenehjem said it will inevitably lead to even more hospitalizations in the coming week, and subsequently more deaths.

“This is the Christmas and New Year’s surge,” he said. “It is exactly as we had expected.”

Since March, there have been 297,317 known COVID-19 cases in Utah and nearly 1.8 million people have been tested for SARS-CoV-2, including 15,564 people tested in Utah since Wednesday, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The health department said 537 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout Utah. More than 87% of available beds in intensive care units across the state are being used, with 187 of those being COVID-19 patients.

So far, 1,359 people in Utah have died because of the virus, the health department reports.

The rolling seven-day average number of positive tests per day is at 2,952, with a percent positivity dangerously high, at 32.71% — the highest it has been throughout the pandemic.

State officials and health care workers had hoped levels would have dropped lower than it did prior to the latest surge in cases. And while numbers were trending downward and hospitalizations did drop below the 85%-full capacity threshold for several days, it didn’t stay that way for long.

“We anticipate January will be pretty rough when it comes to hospitalizations,” Stenehjem said. It could become unmanageable throughout Utah if people don’t revert back to the public health guidelines set by the state health department.

A statewide mask mandate remains in effect through at least the end of the month, and it will likely get extended again.

“Mask use is 100% required and social distancing and hand hygiene are very, very important in reducing transmission,” Stenehjem said. Even after vaccination, care must be taken to not spread the virus.

With Utah vaccinating more and more people, the doctor said, “the numbers will come down faster.”

As of Thursday afternoon, Utah has administered 68,030 COVID-19 vaccines, with 967 people who have reportedly received the important second dose. The first COVID-19 vaccinations to arrive in Utah, shipped by Pfizer-BioNtech, were given to front-line health care workers on Dec. 15.

The state has planned to first vaccinate all hospital workers, as well as caregivers outside of the hospital, patients and staff at long-term care facilities, and will vaccinate educators soon. After that, available vaccines will be given to Utahns 75 and older, and then to people with immune-compromising conditions.

Stenehjem said Intermountain, other hospitals and the state have learned how to make the vaccination process quicker, resulting in more people getting access to the shots in the last week. Every state is lagging in the number of people vaccinated when compared to the amount of vaccine available to them.

Full immunity isn’t achieved until a couple weeks after a second dose, according to vaccine manufacturers. Mild side effects, including fever, chills and others, are common and to be expected, Stenehjem said. Anything lasting longer than 48 hours, he said, would be concerning.

Intermountain is participating in a multistate testing day on Friday to demonstrate the ability to get rapid results of tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests from a single lab in a short time frame, according to Corteva Labs, which has teamed up with various other organizations across the country to pull off the effort. In addition to testing up to 10,000 people for COVID-19 in Utah, the demonstration project will essentially test the nonprofit’s system to see if testing can be done on a massive platform.

The testing will be free and is scheduled at four Wasatch Front locations. Participants must register online prior to being tested.

Otherwise, anyone with symptoms can be tested at a variety of locations throughout the state. More information can be found online, at coronavirus.utah.gov.

More widespread testing had been a goal of former Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the Utah Department of Health since early 2020, but the resources have not been available.

Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson, who were inaugurated and took office on Monday, are expected to address the public and the media during their first COVID-19 update as state leaders on Friday at 11:30 a.m. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn is also expected to provide an update from the health department on the current situation.

The COVID-19 deaths reported on Thursday include:

  • A Cache County man between the age of 45 and 64 who was a long-term care facility resident.
  • Two Davis County women between 65 and 84, one who was a long-term care facility resident and the other who was hospitalized when they died.
  • A Davis County woman older than 85 who was a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Davis County man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized.
  • A Davis County man between 65 and 84 was was a long-term care facility resident.
  • Three Salt Lake County men between 45 and 64, two of whom were hospitalized and one who was a long-term care facility resident.
  • Two Salt Lake County men between 65 and 84 who were not hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County woman between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
  • Three Salt Lake County men and one woman between 65 and 84 who were long-term care facility residents.
  • Two Salt Lake County women older than 85 who were long-term care facility residents.
  • An Iron County woman between 25 and 44 who was not hospitalized.
  • A Millard County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
  • A Utah County man between 65 and 84 who was a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Wasatch County woman older than 85 who was hospitalized.
  • A Washington County man older than 85 who was not hospitalized.
  • A Washington County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
  • A Washington County woman older than 85 who was a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized.
  • A Weber County woman between 65 and 84 who was not hospitalized.
  • A Weber County man between 65 and 84 who was not hospitalized.
  • A Weber County man older than 85 who was a long-term care facility resident.