‘The curve is not flat’; Hospital director sounds alarm as coronavirus hospitalizations increase

Photo illustration. | Photo by Zubada/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The number of those hospitalized in Southern Utah for the coronavirus went up 75% in one day on Thursday, and the medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center said the hospital is now dealing with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The main entrance to Dixie Regional Medical Center on in St. George, Utah on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, said coronavirus hospitalizations at DRMC alone have doubled since the weekend. 

“The reality is, all of our planning has been we’ve just been planning. We’re now seeing the reality of this. It’s a bit sobering,” Carroll said. “This is the key point with infectious diseases. When people affect more than one person, we get exponential growth. The curve is not flat. It’s in an exponential phase in Washington County right now. It’s hard to not call this a surge event.”

According to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, the area set a new high for cases in one day Thursday as Washington County marched past its 300th infected resident. There were 25 new cases reported, 21 of which were in Washington County, and the number of those hospitalized increased to 14.  

Carroll said as of Thursday, more than 60% of the beds at Dixie Regional are filled, though that number includes noncoronavirus patients. In previous weeks, that percentage has remained in the 10% range. 

A chart shows the rise in hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus in May according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

In the Utah Leads Together plan, the state says the threshold for a hospital needs to be at 53% or below to deal with the pandemic properly and for hospitals to not be overwhelmed. 

Carroll said DRMC isn’t at that point yet, and added much of the planning for this moment is paying off thus far.

“We have the beds and we have the ability to take additional patients,” Carroll said. “We haven’t had to add additional spaces yet.”

Since the first positive test in Southern Utah on March 21, there have been 360 confirmed cases of the virus in the area with 304 of those infections coming in Washington County. 

While cases were expected to go up with the reduction in the state coronavirus risk level from red, to orange, then yellow, Washington County has seen a 328.2% increase in cases during the month of May – by far one of the highest in the state.

A chart shows the rise in hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus in May according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

That has Washington County lagging behind the rest of the state, which has seen the case rate plateau to a 1-2% case rate increase and hospitalizations go down in the last week.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has slowly been reopening businesses in the state and ending stay home recommendations to all but the highest-risk individuals with the initial move to orange on May 1 and the further move to the low-risk yellow level on May 16

Herbert said Thursday the statewide data has been encouraging enough that some locales might be able to move to a green risk level in a couple of weeks.

Utah has escaped much of the worst the virus has brought nationwide. While the nation marked its 100,000th death from the virus in four months Wednesday, Utah has the fifth-lowest death rate in the nation from the coronavirus according to John Hopkins University.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during his daily coronavirus press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on April 30, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

“There’s a lot of reason to be hopeful and optimistic,” Herbert said at a press conference Thursday. “It allows us to use data to direct and implement programs and the economy to open up with safeguards in place.”

But that data has not been as favorable for Washington County. Even other areas of Southern Utah outside Washington County have been relatively stable. 

Iron County has seen 26 additional cases for the entire month of May – just one more than Washington County got in one day Thursday.  

Kane and Garfield counties have had no cases this month and Beaver County remains one of the few counties in the state to have never had any cases. 

The question becomes why Washington County is the exception to the rosier picture in other areas of the state. 

Up until now, officials had attributed the rise in cases to the increasing number of tests performed and the availability of tests to more people.   

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, seen during a Zoom teleconference with reporters on May 28, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

Carroll said that is not the case. 

“You need to look at the percent of the total tests taken who are positive. We’re seeing the percentage of patients testing positive increasing,” Carroll said. 

The medical director added up until now, an average of 2.9% percent of the tests taken in Southern Utah have come back as positive. In the last week, the average has been 8-10%. 

“That’s not because of increased testing. It’s because of a higher number of people with COVID,” he said. 

While the area has also seen a surge in out-of-state visitors since businesses and tourist destinations have reopened, Carroll said it is false to say those visitors are to blame for the increasing rate of those who are suffering through the disease. 

He said a large majority of those being treated for the virus at DRMC got the virus from either someone in their household or someone else who lives in Southern Utah.

“These are not people coming from outside Washington County,” Carroll said. “This is community spread.”

In the six months since COVID-19 first appeared, knowledge continues to increase. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says the main form of transmission is from saliva and other droplets passed from a person rather than just touching surfaces. 

What has not changed is there is still no known treatment for COVID-19, let alone a cure. 

But there is a clear prevention, according to Carroll and other medical experts: Social distancing of 6 feet apart and the wearing of masks and face coverings when that is not possible. 

The materials for the making of homemade masks for going out during the coronavirus pandemic. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“One of the things so critical is protecting one another. We’re not doing it because someone else is telling us to do it. The motivation is to protect each other and our neighbors,” Carroll said. “This is a big change where wearing masks is normal. It can feel awkward to put a mask on. As we’re going out, if you’re going to slow the spread, following those guidelines is really important.”

With no treatment or cure, the most that could be done for those with the virus is for them to weather the endless coughing, difficulty breathing and sleepless nights at home or for those with the most severe cases to be made more comfortable at the hospital. 

For 99% of those with the virus, it is not fatal, according to the CDC. And the local death toll has remained four for the last week and there were 43 additional recoveries. 

“One of the best things we see are those who improve and could go home and the majority can go home,” Carroll said. 

But that might not bring comfort to the one out of every 100 who lose the battle to the virus. And Carroll said there are several patients now at DRMC who are intubated and on ventilators, fighting for their lives.  

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of May 28, 2020, one-week increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 360 (100 new in one week)

  • Washington County: 304 (86 new)
  • Iron County: 50 (14 new)
  • Garfield County: 3 
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 4 

  • Washington County: 3 
  • Iron County: 1

Currently hospitalized: 14 (10 new) 

Recovered: 218 (45 new).

Tested: 11,184 (1,473 new tests)

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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