Dixie Regional sees large influx of COVID-19 patients; local politicians speak out on pandemic

ST. GEORGE — In what Dixie Regional Medical Center Medical Director Dr. Patrick Carroll called “sobering,” the hospital set a new one-day high on Tuesday for the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital.

A view inside one of the rooms in the intensive care unit inside Dixie Regional Medical Center as a nurse in COVID-19 protective gear treats a patient. December 2020, St. George, Utah. | Photo courtesy off Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Carroll said there were 67 coronavirus patients in the hospital as of Monday night. Those include patients from outside the Southern Utah area as the regional hospital also serves patients from areas like northern areas of Nevada and Arizona. The Southwest Utah Public Health Department reported 50 locals presently hospitalized with the coronavirus, which also includes local COVID-19 patients at Cedar City Hospital.

The new number of hospitalizations is a setback to what had been a few days of COVID-19 hospitalizations stabilizing locally. 

“The trend has been down but today is the highest it’s been,” Carroll said. The hospital continues to operate beyond the capacity of its intensive care unit and is using extra rooms for ICU rooms. For COVID-19 patients not requiring intensive care, the entire orthopedic floor is not devoted to just COVID-19 patients.

Whether COVID-19 or not, Carroll said the hospital is caring for all its patients.

“We are continuing to find ways to treat everybody, but we have to acknowledge that this is contingency care,” Carroll said. 

The rate of new infections has been down in the last week through much of the area, which may translate to a kind of breather for the hospital as far as new COVID-19 patients in the next few weeks. 

But Carroll said the physical toll hasn’t been as great as the mental toll on the caregivers – especially after Carroll said an average of two COVID-19 patients have died each day in the hospital in a recent seven-day span.

“More challenging has been as I go into the ICU to ask them how they’re doing, I can see it in their eyes how difficult it is when they lose patients,” Carroll said. “They care about every patient they see. When they have a patient who, despite their best efforts, had years of life left yet passed away … that’s more difficult that dealing with a lot of patients.”

Carroll spoke with reporters on a conference call with six local state senators and assemblymen, many of whom recently got a tour inside the COVID-19 wards at the hospital.

State Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane, speaks by teleconference with reporters on Dec. 22, 2020 | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

State Rep. Brad Last was on the tour and ran into a family friend who was a nurse at the hospital. Last said he saw firsthand the mental toll the continuing surge of patients at Dixie Regional is taking on its caregivers. 

“He talked about the emotional challenge of working in that situation, not just putting on the gear but being the only link for that patient to the outside world,” Last, who represents the eastern portions of Washington and Iron counties, said.

State Sen. Don Ipson said getting the tour inside the hospital, as well as seeing what the disease has done to those close to him, has made the problem more real for him. 

“We toured the hospital, and that was very sobering for me,” Ipson said. “Early on, I don’t know that I knew anybody who had COVID. Now I know several who have died from it.”

Vaccine distribution still at early stage

The light at the end of the dark coronavirus tunnel remains the distribution of the Pfizer and, now, Moderna, vaccines. 

Some of the first caregivers to receive the COVID-19 vaccination in Southern Utah shows of his band-aid at Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on Dec. 16, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare

Dr. Kristin Dascomb, who heads infection prevention and employee health for Intermountain Healthcare, said there have now been more than 5,000 caregivers in the Intermountain system that have received the first dose of the vaccine. Carroll said of those, 975 have been Dixie Regional staff. Dascomb said there are 38,000 staff members within the Intermountain system.

Dascomb and Carroll both said while the vaccine is voluntary for staff, the demand to get the vaccine is far more than the speed it is being delivered.

“I can’t tell you how many physicians have reached out to me where it’s not their turn yet and ask, ‘When is it my turn?’”

Under the state’s vaccination timeline, frontline medical workers that work directly with COVID-19 patients are getting the vaccine first. K-12 teachers will follow next, though there is still no firm date for when that will be. 

With now more than a week since vaccinations started in the state, The Utah Department of Health reports there have been 8,518 doses provided in the state. Both vaccines require two shots within 21 days. 

While no public entity has said they will require the vaccine, many of the people who were vocal against mask-wearing are now vocal against the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Ipson said no one should be forced to take a vaccine. But he also said there’s no reason not to take the COVID-19 immunization. 

“It’s anyone’s right to be vaccinated or not. But I’m old enough to remember polio, and we eradicated it with vaccinations,” Ipson, who represents St. George and western Washington County, said. “When it’s my turn, I want to have it.”

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines can have side effects that last up to 48 hours after injection that include fever, headaches and chills. In can also cause a severe allergic reaction in the small part of the population with severe allergies. However, at this point, no long-term effects have been seen with the vaccine other than immunity to COVID-19.  

State Rep. Rex Shipp, speaks by teleconference with reporters on Dec. 22, 2020 | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

State Rep. Rex Shipp, who represents Cedar City and much of Iron County, had choice words for those spreading anti-mask and COVID-conspiracies on the internet. 

“On social media there are those naysayers saying this is an infringement on our freedom,” Shipp said. “I’m glad most people aren’t listening to those people.”

Vickers said he takes offense at what he said is a conspiracy theory that hospitals are making money off having more COVID-19 patients. 

“It’s been a strange political climate where you hear these conspiracy theories where they say they get more money,” Vickers said. “The disease is real but we need to keep a balance in our lives.”

Surge continuing in Cedar City, rural areas

On Oct. 29, the state lifted the mask mandate in Iron County for what Rich Saunders, interim director of the Utah Department of Health, called a “reward” for keeping new infections at a moderate level. The move also followed a letter written by the entire Iron County Commission asking for the lifting of all COVID-19 restrictions in the county. 

At the time, the seven-day daily average of new infections in Iron County was 10.1.

Now, after a spike that continues even now in Cedar City, Iron County is averaging 40.9 new infections per day and has seen its number of dead from COVID-19 go from three to 15. 

State Sen. Evan Vickers speaks by teleconference with reporters on Dec. 22, 2020 | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

State Sen. Evan Vickers, who has long been against any kind of mandate from the State Capitol, said the move to reduce restrictions in Iron County was not a mistake. Vickers, who represents all of Iron and Beaver counties and the eastern portion of Washington County, said people don’t need the government to tell them how to behave. 

“This is just a personal belief. I don’t like mandates. I think that surge was going to happen anyway. I’m not a fan of mandates. I feel like people should just have a choice,” Vickers, owner and operator of Bulloch Drug in Cedar City, said. “No, I don’t think it was a mistake. That surge was going to come regardless.”

During the conference call, Vickers invited Shipp, who also represents a part of Iron County, to provide an additional point of view. Shipp said at the time, Iron County’s number warranted a less-stringent approach. But not now. 

“The numbers didn’t seem to justify masks at one time, but I think things have changed and certainly now is the right time.”

Number of locals with COVID-19 now above 6,000

While the number of new infections continues to be stabilizing below 200 new infections per day, there have never been more people infected with COVID-19 in Southern Utah as there are now. 

There are presently 6,336 people in the five counties infected with the virus, including 4,722 in Washington County alone. That means at least three out of every 100 people in Southern Utah are right now infected.  

Chart shows cases in Beaver, Kane and Garfield counties from the coronavirus from May 1 to Dec. 22, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

An indicator on a holiday week where people traditionally gather together is the latest Georgia Tech risk assessment study. The study, which determines the chance of being in contact with an infected individual in a room with 10 people, has Iron and Washington counties at around a 35% chance of being in contact with someone who has COVID-19 in a room with between 10 and 15 people.

Carroll, noting that most people heeded the advice to keep Thanksgiving gatherings within the household, said it is just as important to do the same for Christmas gatherings this week.

Among local counties, besides Iron County, Beaver County is seeing a substantial increase in new infections in the last week. Beaver, which was the last of the five Southern Utah counties to have a COVID-19 infection and trailed the three most rural counties for a time, is now poised to move ahead of Kane and Garfield counties for third-most infections behind Iron and Washington counties. 

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.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Dec. 22, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 17,233 (220.3 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Dec. 17)

  • Washington County: 13,415 (163.7 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 2,912 (40.9 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 317 (4.9 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 277 (1.7 per day, rising)
  • Beaver County: 312 (9.1 per day, rising)

New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):

  • St. George: 76 (rising)
  • Washington City: 25 (rising)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 17 (steady)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 19 (falling)
  • Cedar City: 33 (rising)

Deaths: 130 (1.4 per day, falling)

  • Washington County: 105 (6 new since last report: female 65-84 at home, female over 85 at home, hospitalized male 45-64, hospitalized male 65-84, hospitalized male 65-84, hospitalized male 65-84)
  • Iron County: 15 (1 new: Hospitalized male 65-84)
  • Garfield County: 7 
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2

Hospitalized: 50 (rising)

Active cases: 6,336 (rising)

Current Utah seven-day average: 2,478 (falling)

Number of vaccinated in Utah: 8,518 

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

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