As the state broke another record Thursday with nearly 9,000 new COVID-19 cases driven by the severely transmissible omicron variant, Utahns were warned hospitals are overwhelmed and treatments for the virus are so limited, there’s only enough for 1 in 100 patients.
“Unfortunately, we’re beginning the new year in a really dire position when it comes to COVID-19,” Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, told reporters during a virtual news conference as Wednesday’s record-setting case count was broken with 8,913 new cases reported Thursday.
“There are more people hospitalized than yesterday, 530. There are more people in the ICU than yesterday, 188,” Hofmann said, and another 13 lives have been lost in the state to COVID-19, including a child. There have now been three Utah youths who died from the virus.
The situation is only going to get worse, she said, citing a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention model that estimated Utah will face somewhere between 12,600 and 38,800 new COVID-19 cases a day by the end of January.
Even though omicron is considered milder, the sheer volume of cases is already sending the state’s health care systems into crisis mode.
Both testing facilities and hospitals — many dealing with staff sickened by COVID-19 — are “bursting at the seams,” Hofmann said, as the omicron variant first identified in South Africa around Thanksgiving roars through the state. Until this week, the most cases reported in a single day was just over 4,700, in late December 2020.
Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, said Utah has “shifted into a true crisis phase.” Webb said the amount of available treatments for COVID-19, which include monoclonal antibodies and antiviral pills, is “very, very limited.”
Only one of the three types of monoclonal antibody treatments work against omicron, he said, while the state has received only a few hundred courses of treatment using the recently approved pills.
He said roughly only 1 of every 100 new cases a day would have access to a treatment. Among those with medical vulnerabilities that make them eligible for the treatments intended to lessen the severity of the virus, just 1 in 10 can expect to receive them.
“We live in an all-you-can-eat society, where scarcity is a very foreign concept. This has created a terribly difficult situation. We are following crisis standards of care principles to focus and prioritize the available therapies to the patients who are at highest risk, immunocompromised and most vulnerable,” Webb said.
He said Utah hospitals are “still in a various spectrum of contingency care” that spell out how health care will be rationed in emergencies but are in crisis standards when it comes to providing the outpatient therapies for COVID-19 patients.
Tracey Nixon, University of Utah chief nursing officer, said the U. hospital was understaffed even before omicron started sickening hundreds of employees, forcing the number of beds to be reduced and surgeries to be postponed.
Patients arriving by ambulance Wednesday night had to be turned away, Nixon said, because the emergency department was deluged with people seeking help. As the surge goes on, she said even more beds are likely to become unavailable due to staffing shortages.
“To step into this new year and face such a dramatic increase in our COVID numbers and to see ourselves back in this place, and truly, in many ways, in a worse position than we were when this started two years ago, is incredibly difficult on our teams,” Nixon said.
What Utahns can do to fight omicron
What’s not in short supply are COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots. The extra dose of vaccine especially is viewed as preventing hospitalizations and deaths from omicron, but only about a third of fully vaccinated Utahns have gotten a booster shot.
Vaccines are widely available to all Utahns 5 and older, and booster shots are now authorized for those 12 and older. Despite the impact of the “explosive growth” of COVID-19 in Utah on the care available, Hofmann said “you can’t overwhelm our vaccination system.”
Dr. Arlen Jarrett, Steward Health Care chief medical officer, said much is still being learned about omicron, including whether hospitalizations and deaths will increase as a result of the new variant, something that will take time to determine.
“We don’t know yet. We have concerns. This is a dire time,” Jarrett said.
But he said Utahns aren’t powerless. In addition to getting all the shots, wearing masks “significantly decreases the spreading of coronavirus, including omicron” to protect not only against catching the virus but from giving it to others, even without showing any symptoms.
Also, Jarrett said crowds should be avoided in the coming weeks but if Utahns do choose to attend a gathering, masks are a must. Testing is also important, Jarrett said, since a positive result may be the prod needed to stay away from others and isolate under new CDC guidelines that are “less onerous.”
Gov. Spencer Cox urged Utahns to protect themselves against omicron, expected to continue to drive up cases for weeks if not months before reaching a peak.
“Recent COVID-19 case counts and deaths are a sobering reminder of just how contagious this Omicron variant is. Like every other state, we expect record case numbers for the next few weeks. We have the tools to beat this, but they only work if people use them,” the governor tweeted.
Summit County imposes mask mandate
Greg Bell, Utah Hospital Association president and CEO, said during the virtual news conference that the organization’s position on what the government needed to be doing about omicron was that “this is an individual problem at this point.”
Bell, a former state lawmaker and lieutenant governor, said it is up to Utahns “to make wise decisions” about staying safe during the surge. Utah lawmakers ended a statewide mask mandate last spring and made it difficult for local governments to impose mitigation measures.
But the rapid rise in cases led Summit County officials to announce a new mask mandate for residents, including schoolchildren, and visitors regardless of vaccination status that requires face coverings be worn indoors or while standing in lines starting at midnight Thursday through 5 p.m. on Feb. 21.
Although county governments were given the ability to overturn mask mandates — and have in Salt Lake County — Summit County Health Department spokesman Derek Siddoway said the requirement put in place by the county manager and county health department has unanimous support from the Summit County Council.
Dr. Phil Bondurant, director of the county health department, stopped short of saying other entities in Utah should follow suit. “I can’t answer that,” he said during a virtual news conference, adding, “I can only make decisions for what’s best in Summit County and that’s the decision that was made today.”