The region’s largest health care provider is already struggling as COVID-19 patients are filling Utah hospitals beyond capacity, but the worst may be yet to come unless more people get vaccinated and wear masks, a doctor on the front lines of battling the deadly virus warned Friday.

“We’re staring down the barrel of potentially a really bad fall and winter without a whole lot of relief unless something changes. So, yeah, I’m worried,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, told reporters during a virtual news conference.

His concern comes as the Utah Department of Health reported 897 new COVID-19 cases and four additional deaths from the virus. The rolling seven-day average for positive tests, which had dropped to just over 200 cases earlier this summer, is now at 844, thanks to a surge driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

The delta variant also may be responsible for more severe COVID-19 cases, including in children, Stenehjem said, with cases and hospitalizations among the young increasing nationwide, numbers he believes will keep going up as the new school year gets underway without mask mandates.

“We will see transmission in schools with this incredibly transmissible delta variant. We will see cases go up in children, and some of those children will have severe disease, and those children will end up in our hospitals,” the doctor said, calling for masks in schools.

Utah doctor sees another advantage to masks in schools — stopping spread of RSV

“I really hope that our communities recognize that masking is the right thing to do at this point in time for children when they go back to school. Children are very good at this,” Stenehjem said, adding there are no documented biological adverse reactions to masking children, although some may not like face coverings.

“But if we want to prevent transmission in our schools, we have to go back to the things that we know that work,” he said, anticipating that once classes resume, not only will more children get COVID-19, they will also spread it to family members, fueling the surge in cases.

An attempt to impose a mask mandate in Salt Lake County schools for children who are too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because the shots are approved only for those 12 and older was overturned Thursday by the Salt Lake County Council.

Intermountain Healthcare hospitals hit 102% capacity in intensive care units and about 98% capacity on acute medical and surgical floors as of Thursday, Stenehjem said, as coronavirus cases in Utah reached levels not seen since last winter.

“So we’re full. Completely full. This is not a place where we want to be,” he said, because that means COVID-19 patients have to be moved to make room for those coming in after suffering heart attacks, strokes, serious accidents or other trauma, adding to the strain on caregivers when morale is already at a low point.

“We’ve been in this fight now for over 18 months. We all kind of thought that, ‘Hey, we have this effective vaccine. It’s safe and it’s effective.’ I think I had it in my mind that everybody’s going to get it that can get it and we wouldn’t be in this situation,” Stenehjem said.

Last week, Greg Bell, head of the Utah Hospital Association, said at a news conference that the state’s hospitals, which have already treated enough COVID-19 patients to fill a sports stadium, are now seeing the numbers climb in intensive care units during the busy summer trauma season.

“We can’t handle it,” Bell said, especially since many have left the medical profession, citing burnout from handling last year’s “steady march” of COVID-19 cases that peaked after the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s holidays, about the time when vaccines were being rolled out.

“This time around it’s going to be worse,” Bell said, because the delta variant has “grabbed us.” He offered what he called “grandfatherly” advice to Utahns who have not been vaccinated against the virus, saying, “The wrong decision could kill you and you won’t know until it’s too late.”

Just over 47% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose. New statistics from the state health department show in the last 28 days, unvaccinated Utahns are some six times more likely to test positive or be hospitalized for the virus — and nearly 11 times more likely to die from it.

“We realize now that COVID is here to stay, and unless we can get our community fully vaccinated, we’re going to be dealing with this for the indefinite future,” Stenehjem said, urging Utahns to get the shots along with wearing masks as “a symbol of safety,” limiting interactions and social distancing to limit the transmission of the virus.

Utahns vaccinated against COVID-19 should still mask up, doctors say

Starting Friday, Intermountain Healthcare has new restrictions on visitors, limiting admitted patients to two visitors every 24 hours rather than two at a time. Adult outpatient surgery patients are allowed only one visitor, while children who’ve had outpatient surgery can have two.

For patients hospitalized with COVID-19, the limit is also one visitor for adults and two for children. Those visitors will need to wear personal protective equipment provided by hospital staff. Intermountain Healthcare is also considering delaying nonemergency procedures.

The University of Utah Health Hospital is at capacity but not changing visitation or other policies at this point, U. health system spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said. Some elective or non-urgent surgeries have been postponed over the past few weeks, she said, decisions that are made “day-by-day, case-by-case.”

“We’re full,” Wilets said, but that number “can change by the hour.”

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers

The 897 new COVID-19 cases reported by the state health department Friday brings the state’s total number of cases to 444,385 since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

There have been more than 3.1 million doses of coronavirus vaccines administered in Utah, a daily increase of 8,342.

Since Thursday, there have been 6,670 people tested and 11,404 tests conducted in the state for the virus. That puts the rolling-seven day average for percent positivity at 9.6% when all results are included and 13.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

Currently there are 354 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. The state’s death toll from the virus is 2,525, including the following four deaths reported Friday:

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• A Salt Lake County woman, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.

• A Utah County man, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.

• A Utah County woman, between 25 and 44, hospitalized at time of death.

• A Weber County woman, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.

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