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Nurse Dani Beebe describes a nonstop scramble in the intensive care unit of Intermountain Medical Center: Staff rapidly changing in and out of protective gear and gowns, moving patients from room to room and hospital to hospital, repeatedly sanitizing rooms and struggling to connect with patients through masks, ventilators and social isolation.
“It’s constant,” Beebe said in an online news conference Wednesday. And behind the minute-by-minute tasks, a question looms: “Every day in the morning we’re thinking, ‘Who’s stable enough to move out?’ so we can have an open bed,” Beebe said.
As Utah’s hospitalizations for COVID-19 soared to new record levels on Wednesday, Intermountain Healthcare began transferring patients at two hospitals to an orthopedic specialty hospital, to free up more room for critically ill patients, said Dr. Mark Ott, medical director for Intermountain Medical Center.
That move comes three days after Intermountain opened an overflow intensive care unit at a hospital in St. George, and less than a week after University of Utah Hospital exceeded its normal ICU capacity.
And state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn told a Legislative committee Wednesday that she expects hospitalization trends to continue.
“Because we’ve seen this flood of cases over the past several weeks, we can continue to anticipate that our ICUs will be stretched thin, knowing that 1% of all of our cases will be needing ICU care," she said.
With 1,363 new coronavirus cases reported Wednesday, Utah’s rate of new diagnoses continued to soar.
For the past week, the state has averaged 1,283 new positive test results a day, continuing a streak of new record highs, the Utah Department of Health reported.
Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 557 on Wednesday, with six fatalities reported since Tuesday:
Three Salt Lake County men, one between the ages of 25 and 44, one age 65 to 84, and one older than 85.
A Weber County man, age 65 to 84.
A Utah County woman, age 65 to 84.
A Washington county woman, age 65 to 84.
Hospitalizations were up sharply, with 314 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported — a new record. On average, 290 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week, the highest weeklong average since the pandemic began.
There have been 694 Utahns reported hospitalized in the past two weeks, with a total of 4,807 patients admitted for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Wasatch County and the Bear River Health District on Wednesday both reported their largest-yet one-week increases in hospital admissions.
Utah’s intensive care units were 73.2% occupied as of Wednesday, according to state data.
While case numbers remain high, Dunn told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services interim committee Wednesday that the state is currently experiencing a three-day plateau of case growth.
“However, it is plateauing at over 1,200 cases per day with a percent positivity of 15%,” she noted.
Dunn noted that the state has also seen drops in its mortality rate. But she cautioned lawmakers to take that number with a grain of salt, noting that the denominator for deaths has risen rapidly as cases have spiked in recent weeks, which can “artificially lower the mortality rate for a short period of time because you have so many people being infected."
The other element that’s influencing mortality rates, she said, is that the age of hospitalized patients has decreased to about 55 years old, meaning healthier people are needing hospital care.
The death rate, she cautioned, “could creep up over time."
As of Wednesday, Utah County had the highest two-week infection rate per capita of any county in the state, followed by Piute, Garfield and Salt Lake.
Meanwhile, 21 of Utah’s 29 counties reported more than 325 cases per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days — one of the state’s criteria for shifting counties into the highest level of restrictions, such as mask orders and limits on gatherings. But there are other criteria as well, such as countywide positivity rates and hospital trends, which the state does not report. On Thursday, state officials will update county restriction levels.
During the first week since the state implemented new metrics, only six counties have been under the highest restriction level.
But the state’s metrics are more lax than federal guidelines, which deem infection rates in the highest level, or “red zone,” when they exceed 101 new weekly cases per 100,000 residents. By that standard, almost the entire state is in the “red zone.”
As of Wednesday, only Daggett and Uintah counties, as well as the most rural parts of Washington County, had infection rates lower than that, according to the state’s “small area” data. Only about 1% of Utah’s population lives in those areas.
Several local health departments reported record-high levels of new cases. The Southwest, Tri-County and Weber-Morgan health districts, as well as Salt Lake County, reported their highest weeklong numbers of new cases. The Central Utah and Tri-County health districts each reported their highest single-day case increases on Wednesday.
For the past week, 15.1% of all tests have come back positive — a record-high rate that also 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 7,571 new test results reported on Wednesday, below the weeklong average of 7,615 new tests per day.
Dunn told lawmakers that the state’s testing capacity has increased significantly to between 7,000 and 9,000 tests per day — meaning the positivity rate is “now indicative of spread throughout the state.”
As health department officials begin eyeing the numbers to see if the new guidance they issued to individual counties would begin decreasing community spread, Utah Department of Health Director Rich Saunders invited lawmakers to work within their “circles of influence” to encourage behavioral changes based on the new rules.
“We’re very hopeful that the public will respond to the transmission index,” he said, noting that “it’s very important that we get engagement.”
“The major behavioral changes revolve around social gathering size and mask wearing," he added. "Very simple, in most cases not very invasive at all, but very effective measures to allow life to continue on, businesses to be open and society to exist and to be healthy and thriving in this pandemic.”