Utah County doc urges people to take this ‘ugly disease’ seriously, as state reports 1,008 new coronavirus cases

(Spenser Heaps | Deseret News, pool) Dr. Clark Bishop, a critical care and pulmonary medicine physician at Utah Valley Hospital, makes an emotional plea for people to take COVID-19 seriously while he speaks at briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020.

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A Utah County doctor fought back tears on Thursday as he pleaded with his neighbors to be less dismissive of the coronavirus while cases continue to increase rapidly in the county.

“I wish you could see what it’s like to have somebody who’s got COVID and is not sure that they’re going to survive,” said Dr. Clark Bishop, critical care and pulmonary physician at Utah Valley Hospital. “They’re in the ICU, all alone, writing goodbye notes to their children.”

With 1,008 new coronavirus cases reported on Thursday, Utah for the past week averaged 987 new cases per day — below Wednesday’s rate of 1,017, but far above the state’s goal to keep weeklong averages to fewer than 400 new cases per day.

Utah County, where Bishop works, remains the worst coronavirus hotspot in the state, with 397 new cases on Thursday — more than any other county. For the past week, Utah County has averaged 61 new cases a day per 100,000 residents, nearly double the statewide average of 31.

And yet, Bishop said tearfully, his community is fiercely divided on the seriousness of the virus.

“I’m deeply saddened by what’s happening there because of the controversies surrounding this disease,” he said in a news conference Thursday alongside Gov. Gary Herbert. “It’s become contentious, and it doesn’t need to be contentious.”

Bishop implored Utah County residents to heed the county’s week-old mask order — and to accept that the virus has serious, long-term effects for many patients who are not among the 1% who die.

“The people who get sick with COVID are very, very sick,” he said. “Each one that I see, it’s heartbreaking."

He recalled one patient who improved enough to be removed from a ventilator, only to discover his lungs were so impaired that he can barely walk.

“There’s still a horrible fibrosis in his lungs that’s not getting better,” Bishop said. “We have some people we call ‘long-haulers.’ The long-haulers are people who have been affected by COVID-19, and it ... just keeps hanging on. This is a miserable, persistent, ugly disease.”

Even worse, he said, patients who appear to be recovering may still not survive.

“COVID can be very, very cruel: Just when you think they’re getting better, just when you think they’re starting to improve ... their heart stops.”

Hospitalizations in Utah held steady Thursday, with 201 patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 186 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — continuing a two-week increase, but below the peak average of 211 patients hospitalized each day at the end of July.

In total, 3,882 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 35 from Wednesday. In the past two weeks, the state has reported 481 hospitalizations for coronavirus — the most of any 14-day stretch since the pandemic began.

If the virus continues to spread at its current rate, Bishop warned, it could produce a "surge of patients that will overwhelm us.”

Utah’s intensive care units were 69.9% occupied as of Thursday, UDOH reported, meeting the state’s goal of less than 85% occupancy.

“Right now, we have capacity [in ICUs]. But we’re busy,” Bishop said. “It is possible to be overwhelmed, and we don’t want that to happen.”

Herbert said state officials will meet with hospital officials to examine what equipment the hospitals need going forward, but reiterated that hospital staffing poses the real limit on how many patients can be cared for at once.

While Utah County reported the state’s largest number and per-capita rate of new cases, the virus continued to spread elsewhere in the state. Davis County reported 98 new cases on Thursday, its biggest single-day jump so far. The virus appears to be spreading most rapidly in southern Davis County, with state data showing the biggest increases per population in North Salt Lake, Bountiful, West Bountiful, Woods Cross and Centerville — though the concentration of new cases in the rest of the county was nearly as high.

Salt Lake County reported 319 new cases on Thursday, with new cases concentrating in the southern part of the valley — Draper, Herriman, Kearns, West Jordan, South Jordan, Copperton and Murray — as well as in downtown Salt Lake City.

And although Herbert said rural Utah’s sparse population is helping to control the virus, central and southeast Utah are seeing their worst outbreaks yet, with Juab County now exceeding 30 new daily cases per 100,000 residents.

Bishop stressed that three things will help Utah beat back the virus: wearing masks, frequently washing hands and staying socially distant.

“Masks make a difference,” said Bishop said, pointing out that Summit County was an early flashpoint for the pandemic because of the concentration of out-of-town skiers. The county instituted a mask order early, he said, and “very soon, Summit County dropped off of being a hotspot.”

He was unequivocal in his advice to Utahns: “Wear a mask, wash your hands, keep your distance.”

American culture isn’t accustomed to wearing face masks, Herbert said, but “our culture’s probably going to change a bit because of this pandemic.”

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 459 on Thursday, same as Wednesday.

For the past week, 13.6% of all tests have come back positive — a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said. Statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.

There were 6,248 new test results reported on Thursday, below the weeklong average of 7,320 new tests per day.

At his weekly news conference on the coronavirus, Herbert responded to on a recent audit by state auditor John Dougall, which criticized the state’s contracting process early in the pandemic.

Herbert acknowledged mistakes, but reiterated that “everybody was working in good faith, and working to find solutions in a difficult [time].”

Herbert quoted his predecessor, former Gov. Mike Leavitt, who ran the federal Department of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration. Leavitt’s observation, Herbert said, is that “everything we do before a pandemic will feel alarmist. Everything we do during a pandemic will feel inadequate.”

Herbert said Thursday that on a recent trip to Washington D.C., he observed that the state’s current spike in cases is “certainly not unique to Utah. … It’s like everybody’s taking their turn.”

Herbert said he was encouraged by the federal government’s movement on a vaccine. “It’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it really is a matter of ‘when,’” he said.