As COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations rise in Utah, caregivers say they’re reaching their limits

ST. GEORGE — In what is becoming a broken record, according to some medical professionals, Utah set a new record Thursday for hospitalizations and new infections from the coronavirus. And Southern Utah is no exception, with five new COVID-19 deaths reported in less than a week’s time.

Dr. Emily Spivak, who leads the division of infectious diseases at University of Utah Health, leaves the podium in tears during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 8, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

During a Thursday press conference at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City, Gov. Gary Herbert brought on Dr. Emily Spivak, who leads the division of infectious diseases at University of Utah Health, to describe the current emotional state of doctors, nurses and other caregivers with hospitals and intensive care units getting closer to capacity statewide. 

“They feel very overwhelmed,” Spivak said. “We feel supported, but people are really tired … I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Spivak, fighting back tears, then walked away from the podium, and Herbert walked back. 

“We’re all tired,” the governor said. “It’s like we’re in the third quarter of a very difficult contest and we’re just going into halftime a little bit tired. We have to make modifications to our strategy and have everyone come together and make our best efforts.” 

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department marked on Thursday the 40th death in Southern Utah since the pandemic began. In Washington County alone, five people have died of COVID-19 since Saturday. The Utah Department of Health also marked the 500th death in the state.

Chart shows deaths and hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus since May 1 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Of those who have died locally, 10 people have passed away in the last two weeks, for a 33.3% increase in the number of COVID-19 deaths in Southern Utah.

Most of the recent deaths are tied to a string of recent outbreaks at local long-term care facilities. The worst outbreak continues to be at Hurricane Health and Rehabilitation, where St. George News has learned the number of patients and staff infected numbers in the double-digits. 

Besides deaths, the number of Southern Utah residents currently hospitalized for COVID-19 has been between 15-17 since the start of the week – the highest it has been since Aug. 4.

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain Healthcare – the system that includes Dixie Regional Medical Center and Cedar City Hospital – said in a video conference the picture inside the halls of Intermountain’s ICU and COVID-19 beds is even bleaker.

“We are now at numbers that are higher than we were in July. It’s higher than it’s ever been,” said Stenehjem, who added the big increase is happening because the current spike that started with a younger demographic is now hitting those more likely to need hospitalization. 

“This spike started with those under 25. Those 25-64 is now going up. They’re the ones who are going to get hospitalized. We knew this was coming, and we’re seeing that reality.”

The Utah Department of Health reported a record 237 people currently hospitalized and 1,501 new infections statewide Thursday. 

Just over a month ago, Herbert was congratulating Utahns for managing to bring the seven-day daily average of new coronavirus infections below 400 per day. As of Thursday, that number stands at an average of 1,114 per day.

Herbert weighs next steps

The governor said he will be meeting with the state’s COVID-19 task force and legislative leaders to determine the next steps to try to stem the current high COVID-19 tide. 

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, Oct. 6, 2020 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

He said all options are on the table, but gave indications Thursday he is less convinced a statewide mask mandate is the answer. 

A mask mandate started in Utah County in late September when it was the major hotspot at the start of the current spike appears to have had an effect, as the county has gone from producing 40% of new coronavirus cases to 30%.

But Herbert said making the whole state follow suit makes little sense, especially for less densely populated rural areas.

“Having a mask mandate in a rural county doesn’t make a lot of sense because it won’t make much of a difference,” Herbert said. “When you think about 3.2 million people, where 80% live in four counties – some urban areas like Logan and St. George – the rest is all rural where social distancing is a way of life.”

A map by the Utah Department of Health showing the density of those who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus in Southern Utah as of Oct. 7, 2020 | Map courtesy of Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Spivak said she laments that wearing a mask to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has become a political issue and that if everyone wore one regularly, there could be a return to as close to normal as possible during a pandemic. 

“We all have a choice. We can all wear a mask or we can continue as we are now and have this conversation over and over,” Spivak said. “As a physician, a concerned resident and a mother, I urge you to wear a mask.”

Herbert’s stance remains to let local jurisdictions decide on whether to make masks mandatory. 

“Heavens, at the end of the day, I hope we don’t have to have government tell us to do the right thing. It’s disappointing when I see people pour kerosene on the fire when we should be working together,” Herbert said, also referring to a June 24 joint statement of faith leaders in the state urging people to wear masks and practice social distancing. “One cannot claim to love one’s neighbor while deliberately putting them at risk. Those who don’t want to wear a mask, then find something else you can do. Gather in smaller groups. Help others. There’s something we can all do.”

More free testing available

Stenehjem said Intermountain has seen some of its largest volume at its testing sites in the last two weeks, including those in St. George, Cedar City and Panguitch. 

But local residents who don’t have health insurance now have an additional option if they are exhibiting symptoms and feel they need to be tested. 

Family Healthcare in Southern Utah has received a grant that will allow them to provide free testing to anyone, regardless of their insurance status. 

Free testing is available at the following locations:

  • 3 Amigos Market (8-11 a.m.), 325 N Bluff St. in St. George.
  • St. George Clinic, 25 N 100 East in St. George
  • Millcreek Clinic at 2408 E. Riverside Dr. in St. George.
  • Hurricane Clinic at  391 N. 200 West in Hurricane.
  • Cedar City Clinic at 245 E. 680 South in Cedar City.
A saliva-based COVID-19 test is demonstrated at the Intermountain Healthcare Southridge Clinic in Riverton, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

The state task force has said a move from yellow to green for Washington or Iron counties will only be considered if the number of COVID-19 tests that come back positive is at 5% and below. 

But according to the Southwest Public Health Department, the number of tests coming back positive is currently 14.4%.

According to Stenehjem, that’s a sign of not only a spike in new infections, but a sign that there may be more infections in sick people who have gone untested.

“It tells us there’s a lot of people out there who have it and are not getting tested when the rate is that high,” Stenehjem said. “We’re under-testing.”

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Oct. 8, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 4,682 (40.7 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 3,676 (31.2 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 815 (7.1 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 87 (1.3 per day, droppng)
  • Garfield County: 59 (0.4 per day, rising) 
  • Beaver County: 46 (0.6 per day, steady) 

Deaths: 40 (0.4 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 34 (5 new since last report: Male long-term facility resident between 65-84, female long-term facility resident older than 85, male not hospitalized at time of death between 65-84, female long-term facility resident between 65-84, male hospitalized between 65-84.)
  • Iron County: 3 
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 6 (rising)

Recovered: 3,974

Current Utah seven-day average: 951 (rising)

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

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