The “alarming” 873 new COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday by the Utah Department of Health signal a situation that could get even worse, doctors said, warning that some elective surgeries are already being postponed at University of Utah Hospital.

“The reality is that the pandemic is not over. This is a terrible disease that still affects people’s lives and livelihoods. It’s affecting more and more Utahns every day. The consequences are not limited to health only, but they impact our society and community in many, many ways,” Dr. Brandon Webb said shortly after the numbers were released.

Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest medical provider, called a virtual news conference to address what it described as an “alarming” rise in COVID-19 cases in Utah.

Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, said the state is once again in a position where “social restrictions” such as masks may again be necessary in some venues to control the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, believed responsible now for 85% of Utah cases.

“Unfortunately, with 800 cases per day, we’re in a position at the state of Utah where we need to start re-implementing precautions to decrease community transmission because we are seeing unnecessary hospitalizations and preventable deaths,” Webb said.

Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature lifted a statewide mask mandate and other restrictions related to COVID-19, including on the size of public gatherings, while also making it much more difficult for other entities to take action against the virus.

Intermountain Healthcare has not yet postponed any elective surgeries, but Webb said the situation is being “very, very closely” monitored as COVID-19 patients continue to fill hospital beds. He said the current high numbers are likely to continue to increase.

Dr, Kencee Graves, University of Utah Health associate chief medical officer for inpatient services, told reporters at a hastily called virtual news conference that some elective surgeries are starting to be postponed because the hospital has had “double to triple” the number of COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks.

“We need to be able to create capacity to take care of those that are critically ill,” Graves said. About half of the patients filling those hospital beds have COVID-19, she said, and the majority of them have not been vaccinated against a virus that is now more than twice as transmissible.

Graves said unlike last year, when hospitals were able to stretch their capacity to accommodate rising coronavirus cases, the U. has hundreds of job openings so there aren’t nurses and other providers available to work the extra shifts.

“No one at the University of Utah wants to postpone a case. We want to be there for our patients. We take the best care of people that we can. But if there is not a bed for you and a doctor and a nurse, we cannot do a surgery that can safely be postponed,” she said.

Just over half, 51%, of all Utahns have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 45.4% are considered fully vaccinated against the virus, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose. But Graves said “there are people living life like the pandemic is over, so transmission may be higher now.”

She said it’s tough to see suffering that’s preventable and expressed concern Wednesday’s spike in cases stretches into months rather than a week or so. Late last summer, before vaccines were available, the state saw cases go up, then surge to several thousand a day through the end of the year holidays.

“That is worst-case scenario. I want to believe that we’re not going to get there with half of our population vaccinated now. Half isn’t, and many of us are living like there isn’t a virus out there. So my personal fear is this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Graves said.

Webb said health care providers are hearing from unvaccinated patients hospitalized with COVID-19 “who thought they were safe” that they wished they’d gotten the shots. He said the price tag for the average coronavirus admission is about $25,000, a “devastating cost” that leaves some families deep in debt.

Both doctors as well as the state health department urged Utahns to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We have the tool to end the disruption and inconveniences of COVID-19 on our lives and the economy — vaccination,” the state health department said in a statement, pointing out that nearly all coronavirus “cases, hospitalizations and deaths are now among those who have chosen to not get vaccinated.”

The state health department statement asked “all Utahns to carefully consider getting vaccinated and to seek out credible information about the vaccines from their health care provider and reputable health organizations. Vaccinations are FREE and available to anyone 12 and older,” at sites around the state.

There have been a total of 2,963,291 vaccine doses administered in Utah, a daily increase of 6,434.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 622 per day, and 5,004 people were tested and 9,335 tests conducted in Utah since Tuesday. That puts the seven-day average for percent positivity of tests at 9.32% when all results are included and 13.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

Currently, 295 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, and the death toll has reached 2,424. The four deaths reported Wednesday, including one that occurred prior to July 1, are:

  • A Utah County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Salt Lake County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Salt Lake County woman, between 25-44, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Uintah County woman, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death