Health workers say they’re near the brink as Utah reports another single-day COVID-19 record

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and medical caregivers from the University of Utah Hospital, talk about the intensity of care given to hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and the severity of Utah’s ICU bed capacity, on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

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Utah saw another 1,960 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday — a new single-day record that had health officials and elected leaders pleading with the public to take the pandemic seriously and make personal sacrifices.

“Utah, do you hear these alarms that are blaring at us? This is a crisis,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said at a news conference.

The additional cases pushed Utah past a new milestone: More than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported statewide since the pandemic began. Since March, when the first cases were reported in the state, 101,509 Utahns have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The previous one-day record, of 1,543 cases, was set Thursday.

Flanked by a team of doctors and nurses at a news conference, Mendenhall announced that the ICU at University of Utah Hospital is now at 99% capacity.

In stern and urgent tones, U. health professionals described the dire and exhausting situations hospitals face as the state’s cases continue to surge.

“We need you, as our community, more than ever. We need you to wear your mask when you leave your house, we need you to wear your mask when you’re with anyone besides those you live with,” said Kencee Graves, chief medical officer of patient care.

Last week, the U.'s hospital opened its surge ICU for the second time since the pandemic began.

If the state’s daily case counts linger above 1,200, Graves said, Utahns can expect full ICUs. For the past week, the state has averaged 1,355 new positive test results a day, the Utah Department of Health reported.

Physicians explained the ripple effects caused by the influx of COVID-19 infections: canceled surgeries for non-COVID-19 patients. A person who had a heart attack and couldn’t immediately get care in Utah. Two patients who are unable to eat, one on a feeding tube and another on an IV, whose operations are now delayed until December. Doctors and nurses so consumed with treating ill patients that they only return home to sleep.

“These last seven months have pushed myself and my colleagues to our limit," said Katrina Emery, a nurse in the U.'s ICU unit. “This isn’t sustainable and we’re exhausted.”

Close to tears, Emery added that the hardest part of her job has been watching over patients who are lonely and scared.

“Lonely because many times we don’t speak the same language. Scared because they can’t breathe and scared because they may never experience life outside the hospital walls,” she said.

As of Friday, 75.7% of ICU beds and 55.6% of non-ICU beds are occupied in the state. But Graves said available hospital beds should not give the public a false sense of security, due to the current run on the health care system.

“What I will tell you is a hospital bed is meaningless if you do not have a doctor and a nurse to take care of you,” Graves said. “A bed is a bed. If it is not a staffed bed, it will not save your life.”

Mendenhall said many Utahns have averted their attention from the toll of COVID-19 on the state’s health care system because they don’t witness it on a daily basis, like doctors and nurses.

“Although our public may feel it’s a mercy to not be exposed to the grim visual realities of this illness, I believe right now this invisibility is to the detriment of our entire state,” she said. “There’s an incredible amount of pain and suffering and death.”

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus rose to 567 on Friday, with four fatalities reported since Thursday. They were:

• A Davis County man, between the ages of 45 and 64.

• A Washington County man, older than 85.

• Two Salt Lake County men — one between 45 and 64, the other between 65 and 84.

Hospitalizations rose on Friday, with 313 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. That’s compared to 301 the day before. There have been 719 Utahns reported hospitalized for COVID-19 in the past two weeks.

The mayor and U. health workers pleaded with the public to cancel gatherings with friends and extended family, including over the coming Halloween and Thanksgiving holidays. They stressed the importance of getting a flu shot so hospitals aren’t further overwhelmed. Over and over, they begged Utahns to mask up.

“If you are in a bar, if you are in a restaurant, if you are unmasked, people, you are putting yourselves and those you love at risk,” Graves said.

Gov. Gary Herbert, in a statement, reminded Utahns that 21 of the state’s 29 counties are under a public health order requiring people to wear masks when outside their immediate household — even when around family members or friends.

“Now is not the time to let down your guard,” Herbert said.

Herbert has urged Utahns repeatedly to wear masks, practice hand hygiene and engage in social distancing. He has been criticized, though, for not imposing a statewide mask order, which he has said would be difficult to enforce and would be seen by some residents as an imposed government mandate.

For the past week, 15.8% 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 8,454 new test results reported on Friday.

Salt Lake County reported 786 new cases, a new one-day record. The Southwest Utah Health District, which includes St. George, also had a new single-day record, with 134 cases reported. Case counts in Utah County (519), the Weber-Morgan Health District (167) and Davis County (153) were significant, but not record-breaking.

Ahead of announcing Friday’s case numbers, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, tweeted a study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that discussed how Arizona reduced its cases by 75% with enforced mask orders, limited public events and certain businesses closures (including bars, gyms, movie theaters and water parks).

In total, 4,939 patients have been hospitalized statewide for COVID-19, up 65 from Monday. On average, 299 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week.