Utah governor said crowded hospitals ‘should cause us all alarm,’ as state breaks record for new cases

(Laura Seitz | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert wears a mask prior to speaking at the PBS Utah Governor's Monthly News Conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020. The event was devoted exclusively to COVID-19. Herbert said the increase in hospitalizations, which is threatening to overwhelm intensive care units, "should cause us all alarm."

Gov. Gary Herbert warned that as the state experiences record-high coronavirus hospitalizations and case counts continue to climb, the health care system is at or near capacity.

“It should cause us all alarm,” Herbert said, warning that “our hospitals are starting to fill up."

The Utah Department of Health reported 1,543 new coronavirus cases on Thursday and 301 patients concurrently admitted to hospitals. On average, 296 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — a record high.

“For the first time as a physician, I’m scared to see what’s to come,” Eddie Stenehjem, infectious disease medical director for Intermountain Healthcare, said during Herbert’s monthly PBS Utah news conference. “I’m scared about the next few months that we will endure here in Utah unless something changes.”

More than 700 Utahns have been reported hospitalized for coronavirus in the past two weeks — the highest number of any 14-day stretch since the pandemic began. In total, 4,880 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, an increase of 73 from Wednesday.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said the state’s health care providers are exhausted, the public health system is strained and Utahns are afraid.

“I just, I don’t know what to do any more,” Dunn said, shaking her head in exasperation. “I’m really not trying to scare anyone. I’m just trying to inform you of what’s going on and give you the facts of where we are in this pandemic."

Stenehjem described hospital floors filled with COVID-19 patients who are suffering and lonely, cut off from the comfort of their family and friends. Many of them won’t survive the disease, he said, and some of those who do will grapple with the chronic conditions that the infection can leave behind.

“I wish I could take all of you with me on these rounds,” he told reporters. “These rounds teach you the respect you need for this virus.”

At this point, Utah hospitals have the resources to care for patients across the state, Stenehjem said. But, he cautioned, the day could be coming when that’s no longer the case.

“Don’t let our hospitals get overrun. If that happens, we’ve failed,” Stenehjem said.

He directed some of his comments to elected leaders: “Be bold, and take the actions that protect your citizens, even if it’s not popular.”

It’s been more than a week since the governor declared Utah’s ongoing surge of coronavirus cases “unacceptable” and announced a new strategy for imposing local restrictions across the state. Even though the coronavirus has continued to sweep across communities in the state, the governor stood behind the plan and said it’s too soon to tell whether the new approach is paying off.

But no strategy will succeed if individuals don’t change their behavior, Herbert said, arguing there’s little the government can do to force compliance.

“Short of locking people up and putting them in isolation, I guess, in some kind of prison state,” he said, “I don’t know what else we could do.”

Taking a heavy-handed approach could backfire in a conservative state like Utah, where “there’s a lot of people who don’t like government telling them what to do," he added.

He acknowledged that, “It is really a frustrating fight we have going here. It is like whack-a-mole.”

Even though most people won’t die from COVID-19 or develop severe symptoms, Herbert said he’s concerned about the lasting impacts of the disease — conditions that medical experts are only beginning to understand. Among possible long-term consequences are damage to the lining of the heart, blood clots, and damage to the nervous system, Herbert said.

The governor’s own daughter has lost her sense of smell three months after being infected, and his 13-year-old granddaughter has lost weight because she is nauseated when presented with food.

Utah’s intensive care units have been 72.2% occupied for the past week, but the figure reflects statewide ICU capacity and does not account for different needs from city to city, or for certain medical specialties.

Hospitals in Salt Lake City and St. George have opened overflow ICUs after filling their regular ICU beds, and at least one family said long delays befell a patient requiring emergency pulmonary care for at yet another hospital — delays that doctors there reportedly attributed to crowding from COVID-19.

Troubling signs

There are signs that the strain on hospitals will only get worse. Patients often require hospital treatment a week or more after they’re infected, which means today’s record-breaking case loads have yet to show up in the state’s hospital numbers.

Another bad sign is the percent of tests coming back positive. Health officials have said a low rate of positive test results — 3% or so — indicates that most infected people are getting tested, and health professionals have a good idea of the scale of the outbreak.

But for the past week, 15.5% of Utah’s tests came back positive — a record high, and a clue that true infection rates are worse than the known case numbers suggest. Those undiagnosed patients not only can unwittingly start new clusters, they or the people they infect may later turn up at hospitals in numbers that health officials didn’t anticipate based on the number of new cases each day.

And no single part of the state appears to be responsible for the high percent of tests coming back positive, according to data released Thursday. Positivity rates rose during the past week in 23 of Utah’s 29 counties — some precipitously — which suggests the virus is likely spreading under the radar in a lot of different communities.

Fifteen of Utah’s counties rose to the highest coronavirus restriction levels on Thursday, with 21 of the state’s 29 counties now deemed to have “high” transmission levels under new state guidelines.

Beaver, Box Elder, Carbon, Davis, Emery, Grand, Millard, Morgan, San Juan, Sanpete, Sevier, Summit, Tooele, Washington and Weber counties shifted up to “high” transmission levels in the first weekly update under Utah’s new coronavirus guidelines.

That means residents in those counties will be required to wear masks and limit gatherings to 10 people for at least two more weeks; counties with “moderate” transmission levels may loosen those restrictions on Oct. 29. The 15 counties join six others — Garfield, Juab, Utah, Salt Lake, Cache and Wasatch — already in the highest restriction category.

In addition to 15 counties moving to “high” transmission levels, Duchesne moved from “low” to “moderate” level, joining Iron and Uintah counties — the only two that remained in the “moderate” category for a second week.

New rules

Residents in those counties are ordered to abide by mask requirements and limit gatherings to 10 people until Oct. 29, which is the end of the state’s two-week “circuit breaker,” during which heightened rules in moderate-transmission counties are intended to suppress a statewide surge that has made Utah’s outbreak one of the ten worst in the nation.

But even as more counties fall under Utah’s highest restrictions, the state’s standard for “high” transmission levels are lower than other analyses. For instance, federal guidelines define infection levels in the “red zone” if weekly cases exceed 101 new patients per 100,000 people. According to the state divisions that officials use to examine health trends at the community level, all 98 of Utah’s “small areas” except Cedar City reported case rates that high.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 563 on Thursday, with six fatalities reported since Wednesday and one previous death removed from the list after further investigation by medical examiners. The six new fatalities are:

  • A Davis County woman, age 65 to 84.

  • A Garfield County man, older than 85.

  • A Juab County woman, age 65 to 84.

  • A Salt Lake County woman, age 45 to 64.

  • A Salt Lake County man, age 45 to 64.

  • A Utah County man, age 65 to 84.

For the past week, the state has averaged 1,289 new positive test results a day — a record high, the Utah Department of Health reported.

Utah County’s weeklong case gains remain the worst, per capita, of any county in the state — but Salt Lake County has nearly caught up. Locally, the worst infection rates are in Orem, Provo, Salt Lake City’s Glendale neighborhood and the towns of Blanding and Monticello in southwest Utah, according to state data. Weeklong case gains reached record highs Thursday in Salt Lake County as well as the Weber-Morgan health district and the Tri-County area of eastern Utah.

Wasatch County reported more hospitalizations per capita than any other part of the state, with record high hospital admissions there as well as Salt Lake, Weber and Morgan counties.

Testing is on the rise, too. Statewide, there were 10,291 new test results reported on Thursday, above the weeklong average of about 8,000 new tests per day.

While most Utahns seem to understand the severity of the coronavirus, Herbert said "some folks aren’t taking it seriously, aren’t doing everything they can to protect themselves.” Wearing a mask is an easy precaution that doesn’t hurt the economy, the governor continued, and he and other health officials sounded frustrated that some are rebelling against such a simple tactic for keeping the disease in check.

But Herbert acknowledged that mask-wearing has become politicized across the nation and blamed both Republicans and Democrats for turning the public health recommendation into a controversial issue. He said he’s encouraged President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and White House staff to wear masks and lead by example.

“I can’t account for others' behavior,” he said. “We’re trying to do the best we can here in Utah.”

Despite the grim warnings from Herbert and health experts Thursday, the governor said people should continue to shop, work and even go trick-or-treating on Halloween, as long as they’re being responsible. Dunn said she’s most concerned about social gatherings before and after trick-or-treating and encouraged people to stay in their household groups and wear masks when they go out.

Utah jobs

Taylor Randall, the head of Herbert’s team guiding Utah’s economic recovery from COVID-19, said Thursday that officials “are trying desperately to avoid any potential shutdown of businesses,” as new unemployment data was released.

Utah’s unemployment levels jumped up in September, but Randall said the rise to 5% was a sign of more residents seeking jobs, boosting labor participation as several government benefit programs come close to expiring.

The state Department of Workforce Services is now getting 34,579 ongoing jobless claims week to week, with other data showing nearly 82,800 residents out of work last month. As of Oct. 17, of those getting jobless help, 22,481 were on traditional state benefits; 3,556 were on special aid for the self-employed and independent contractors; and about 8,542 people were taking extended benefits after other aid has run out.

Employers were being urged to visit stayopenutah.com, Randall said, for protocols “to effectively maintain contact with customers, keep your employees safe and keep your businesses operating."

— Reporter Tony Semerad contributed to this story.