Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.
For the past week, Utah’s hospital beds have been occupied by more coronavirus patients than at any time since the beginning of the pandemic.
There were 211 patients hospitalized concurrently as of Tuesday, for a seven-day average of 209 — a new weeklong record. And the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) announced 42 new hospital admissions, one of the biggest daily increases so far.
Meanwhile, the state’s death toll stood at 286 on Tuesday, with five new deaths reported. They are:
A Salt Lake County man, older than 85, who died in a hospital.
A San Juan County man, older than 85, who lived in a long-term care facility.
A Davis County woman, between the ages of 65 and 84, who lived in a long-term care facility.
A Salt Lake County man, age 65 to 84, who lived in a long-term care facility.
A Washington County woman, age 65 to 84, who died in a hospital.
There were 446 new cases reported on Tuesday, continuing a monthslong pattern of Mondays and Tuesdays returning lower numbers than the state’s seven-day average. As of Tuesday, that average was 541 per day — still above the 500-case average that Gov. Gary Herbert has called for by Aug. 1, but lower than Monday’s average of 544.
The decrease in new cases appears to be driven by Salt Lake County, where seven-day averages have fallen from 302 new cases per day on July 15 to 224 on Tuesday. A mask order has been in place in Salt Lake County since June 27. As of Tuesday, Salt Lake County was averaging fewer cases per capita than San Juan, Beaver, Garfield and Utah counties.
For about a month, Utah has charted big swings in its daily numbers; within the past week alone, daily increases have ranged between 358 and 854 new cases. The sudden drop early this week may be due to the Pioneer Day holiday last week, said UDOH spokesman Tom Hudachko.
“I think a couple of the dips can definitely be attributed to the two holiday weekends,” Hudachko said. “We’re seeing a similar pattern coming out of the 24th that we did coming out of the 4th.”
The fluctuating case numbers may also tie to fluctuations in testing, Hudachko said. Between Thursday and Friday, for instance, the number of test results reported jumped from 4,020 to 8,649. In mid-July, daily test reports jumped from fewer than 3,000 to nearly 9,400 results in just two days.
It’s not clear whether the swings in test results is related to demand or shifts in capacity.
Statewide, the average “turnaround time” — or the time between collecting samples and reporting results — was at 3.2 days as of last week, Hudachko said.
“Going back to the start of July, this has remained relatively stable,” he said, fluctuating between 2.9 and 3.2 days.
But the supply chains for testing may be getting less stable. Although shortages of testing supplies now do not compare to the shortages that devastated early testing efforts nationwide, labs such as Salt Lake City’s ARUP Laboratories are using multiple testing processes to keep working at their capacity when certain supplies are limited.
That means managing a complicated network of suppliers to feed each process, said Jonathan Genzen, ARUP’s chief operating officer.
“Many laboratories use equipment for COVID testing from multiple companies,” Genzen said, in order to manage as the needed reagents shift in availability. Meanwhile, automated instruments for COVID testing “are also in extremely limited supply,” Genzen said.
So labs have cobbled together alternatives — for instance, using equipment that processes tests in varying batch sizes.
There are ways to automate some steps in those different platforms, such as pipetting fluid, Genzen said. “But the community is starting to see shortages of disposable pipette tips that are compatible with such automation and appropriate for molecular diagnostic testing,” he said.
Genzen wouldn’t disclose the COVID-19 testing capacity at ARUP or details as to its shifts in capacity. But he said ARUP has a team to “work with vendors and identify alternatives when necessary.”
“I can’t say enough about how that has helped our company address the COVID crisis, and therefore our patients here in Utah and nationally. We couldn’t do this without their ongoing efforts,” Genzen said.
Whether because of shifts in demand or testing capacity, the fluctuating case numbers mean Utahns should look at data over time, rather than individual days, Hudachko said.
“That is exactly why we utilize a rolling average,” he said. “It will correct for things like lower demand for testing on a holiday or the single day increase where we added antigen (test results) and the backlogged cases.”
The rate of positive test results for the previous week rose slightly, from 9.5% on Monday to 9.7% on Tuesday. The highest average percent positive was 10.5% on June 19, with another peak of 10.3% on July 11, according to UDOH data.
Of the 38,855 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 25,905 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.