The surge continues: Utah reports 578 new COVID-19 cases, with one new death; St. George ICU nearing capacity

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Masks are for sale on the corner of 900 E. 3300 South in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 26, 2020.

Utah saw an increase of 578 COVID-19 cases Saturday as a spike in infections continued to stress medical providers and hospital capacity.

That brought the state’s total to 20,628 positive cases thus far in the pandemic, a daily rate increase of 2.9% from Friday. The state reported an additional death from the virus, that of a San Juan County woman over 85 who was hospitalized when she died. Utah’s overall death count due to the coronavirus now stands at 167.

And in several grim milestones, confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide appeared likely to surpass 10 million by late Saturday or early Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins University, as global deaths edged toward 500,000. At the same time the U.S. reached 2.5 million cases and had just exceeded 125,000 deaths — the highest toll of any country.

The news comes a day after Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, issued the direst warnings yet that worsening case numbers meant all residents should be wearing a mask, whether it’s required in their county or not. Without a “large-scale behavior change on the part of all Utahns to reverse this trend,” she said, death counts and hospitalizations would only rise.

The Utah Department of Health also reported Saturday the state had done 5,234 tests for the coronavirus since Friday, which had brought the state’s rate of positives to 6.4% of all those tested.

Forty-four more people had been hospitalized for COVID-19, for a total of 189 in a hospital bed as of Saturday. That brings to 1,365 the total of those needing hospital treatment in the state since the pandemic began, health officials said.

Utah's total number of unrecovered coronavirus cases:

The virus showed signs Saturday of further spread in areas off the Wasatch Front, as well.

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, said the St. George hospital had nearly reached full capacity earlier in the week and remained close to that limit amid continuing spikes in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

The hospital’s chief doctor said in a teleconference Friday its intensive care unit had nearly reached capacity earlier in the week and remained close to that limit amid continuing spikes in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

He urged people in the region to wear masks and social distance in hopes of preventing the situation from deteriorating, as first reported in the St. George News.

The St. George facility has 32 ICU beds but had contingency plans for creating a temporary “surge” ICU, reportedly with the potential for up to 89 ICU beds. The hospital came close last week to enacting that plan, Carroll said.

Yet, even that capacity had potential to fill up, Carroll warned, in light of COVID-19 patients needing an average of 30 days or more of ICU treatment. He estimated Friday that a third of ICU beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients, and Carroll raised concerns over being able to treat those needing ICU care for other reasons.

Opening the surge unit could also stretch staffing capacity, Carroll said. The hospital was considering calling in a favor owed to it by hospitals in New York, where Dixie Regional and Cedar City Hospital medical staff had assisted in April.

Washington County surpassed its 1,000th person infected with COVID-19 on Thursday, when it reached 1,011 cases, up from 374 at the beginning of June.

A spokeswoman for Dixie Regional Medical Center said the hospital had not hit its ICU capacity as of Saturday afternoon.

Across the state, Utah has seen hospitalizations from COVID-19 nearly double since Memorial Day, jumping from 692 patients to 1,365 as of Saturday. A total of 353 of those new hospitalizations have happened in the past two weeks.

Salt Lake County alone has seen its case count rise by 19.9% over the past week and by 127% since Memorial Day.

Newly approved requirements that residents wear masks in public took effect early Saturday in Salt Lake and Summit counties.

Harmons Grocery announced Friday its customers will be required to wear face masks while shopping inside, beginning Saturday at all its stores located in Salt Lake County and as of July 5 at other Utah locations.

The Utah Transit Authority began Saturday to comply with new face mask requirements in Salt Lake and Summit counties. The agency said in a statement it will also require face coverings for riders and employees on trains and buses in Utah, Davis, Weber, Tooele and Box Elder counties beginning Wednesday.

UTA said it would providing face masks for riders who needed them, available at UTA customer service locations and, eventually, on transit vehicles.