The medical director of Intermountain Park City Hospital credited Summit County’s mask mandate that was recently removed by the Utah Legislature with slowing the omicron surge but warned what he called a pandemic of both COVID-19 and “personal moral character” isn’t over.
“It’s a disease and a pandemic that could have ended long ago if we could just put the needs of others ahead of our own,” by wearing masks in public as well as getting vaccinated and boosted against the virus, Dr. Wing Province told reporters during a virtual news conference called by the region’s largest health care provider.
Utah is still grappling with the deadly virus despite some suggesting it’s time to move on, Province said, citing record hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Utah as well as a death toll exceeding 875,000 in the United States, higher than the casualty counts of all the wars fought by Americans since WWII.
He said if Utahns choose not to follow mitigation measures intended to slow the spread and ease the severity of omicron infections but instead “put our own priorities ahead of those around us, then we’re going to continue to have this pandemic, a pandemic not only of a virus but I think a pandemic of personal moral character.”
But Province, among the medical personnel from Utah deployed to New York City in the earliest days of the outbreak, also talked about how residents of the huge and diverse city were able to put aside their differences to come together in a crisis.
“I’m very optimistic,” he said. “I’ve seen it in my neighbors. I’ve seen it in my community. I’ve seen it in New York. I’ve seen it all over the country. I know we can do it. It’s part of our American values to put the needs of others ahead of our own. That is who we are in the United States.”
Cases are headed down in Summit County, the first place in Utah hit hard by the incredibly transmissible omicron variant of COVID-19 due at least in part to tourists coming from outside the state and even the country to ski and bringing the virus with them.
Having a countywide mask mandate in place for several weeks, including over the busy Martin Luther King holiday weekend is a piece of that decline, the doctor said. But he added that the limits on testing now recommended by state officials may be affecting the case count.
“It’s really hard to tell,” he said, adding that the county “had the mask mandate. We’re seeing a decline in cases here. It’s hard not to ignore that fact.” State lawmakers voted last week to end locally imposed mask mandates in Summit as well as Salt Lake counties, saying they don’t work to stop the spread of COVID-19 and are divisive.
Thursday, the Utah Department of Health reported 7,033 new COVID-19 cases and six additional deaths from the virus. The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is now 7,820 per day, but that is likely undercounted after most Utahns with symptoms were urged to skip overwhelmed state testing sites and just stay home.
Since Wednesday, 14,481 people were tested for the virus and 35,767 tests conducted in Utah, not including tests conducted at home that are not reported to the state. The rolling seven-day average of percent positivity is 46.7% when all results are considered and 30.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
The biggest surprise in Thursday’s numbers was that 843 people are currently hospitalized in the state for COVID-19, up from the record of 776 set Wednesday. The state health department attributed the increase to an error in the way some hospital’s capacity data was being recorded after the system was switched last October.
“A lot of people I think pay attention to just the number of positive tests and really the true marker of how severe this disease is, is in hospitalizations,” Province said, even though the variant is considered milder than previous versions.
Many people who show up at the Park City hospital with COVID-19 symptoms don’t have to be admitted but end up having to return or deal with lingering effects, he said, describing a young man with the virus who not only had to give up sports but now has a series of stools set up in his home so he can rest on his way to the bathroom.
The doctor said as many as 25% of hospital visits in Park City are because of COVID-19. He praised the Sundance Film Festival for putting “lives and health over profits” and going virtual again this year. The 2020 festival, the doctor said, occurred the month before the pandemic officially began and led to a surge in cases.
In addition to a deluge of virus cases, hospitals nationwide are also dealing with a shortage in blood supplies that requires “cautionary measures” to ensure what’s available goes to those who need it most, he said, blaming a lack of Red Cross and other personnel to process blood after it’s donated.
Province said he had a message for Utahns who want health care providers and others to “let go” of the pandemic soon to stretch into a third year so it can end.
“I want you to know we doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists and technicians and everybody who works in the hospital, we don’t want this, either. We wish it were over with, too,” he said. “We actually think it could have been over a long time ago had proper public health measures been taken by the public.”