Coronavirus in Utah: COVID-19 numbers continue to climb as cold weather settles in

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A line of cars bends around the University Of Utah Hospital's parking lot as people wait for COVID-19 testing in Farmington, Oct. 23, 2020.

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Snow is falling. COVID-19 numbers are rising.

As Utah experienced its first cold snap Sunday, it also extended its record streak of coronavirus cases. The Utah Department of Health announced Sunday that 1,765 people had tested positive for the virus. That’s the second-highest daily total for the state since the outbreak started. The previous reported high was Friday’s 1,906 confirmed cases. Thursday through Sunday represents the four days with the most cases in Utah, with 6,822 total. More than 10,000 have been reported for the week.

The seven-day rolling average of positive tests has now exceeded 16% of people tested, also a record. Health officials say positive test rates this high indicate that large numbers of infected people haven’t been tested. In one week, the seven-day positivity rate has jumped from 14.4% to 16.6%, a clear sign the outbreak is worsening.

UDOH reported 8,702 people were tested Saturday, and the rolling weekly average for positive tests is 1,490 per day.

Even if winter wasn’t around the corner, action would need to be taken soon, said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician for Intermountain Healthcare.

“We’re getting to a point where something’s going to need to be done to change this current trajectory,” he said. “That may mean another statewide, temporary pause unless something dramatic happens. Our health care systems are already on the brink, and there’s currently no signs of the current surge letting up. So it’s certainly a very, very severe situation we need to really do something about.”

Last week, Utah hit other coronavirus landmarks in addition to its daily records. It crossed the threshold of 100,000 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. Of those, 27,165 were tallied within the past three weeks.

The state also went over 5,000 hospitalizations since March. On Sunday, 308 people were reported hospitalized with 120 in the ICU — yet another high-water mark for a one-day total. Hospitals reported that 76.1% of their intensive care unit beds are occupied, but their representatives have said that they do not actually have the staff to fill 100% of their ICU beds.

“If we are at 85%,” Joe Dougherty, spokesman for Utah’s Division of Emergency Management, said. “We are basically at 100%.”

Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association, has told The Salt Lake Tribune that administrators of the state’s hospitals warned Gov. Gary Herbert that they likely will need his approval within the next two weeks of guidelines to begin rationing patient care.

Utah now ranks sixth in the nation in cases per capita with a seven-day average of 44.4 per 100,000 residents. It is more widespread only in Wisconsin (which leads the United States with 73.5 cases per 100,000), Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People aren’t just catching COVID-19, they’re dying from it. And they’re not all older adults.

A male in the 15-24 age group who had been hospitalized was among the four people UDOH reported Sunday had died from COVID-19. His county of residence was not provided, though the Bear River Health District — which includes Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties — reported an additional death Sunday. He is one of the youngest coronavirus casualties in the state. Fewer than five cases have been reported in that category.

Also among the dead are two Washington County men, one older than 85 and one between 65 and 84, who were both hospitalized. The fourth person is an Emery County woman between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized at the time of her death.

Utah reported 29 deaths this week alone.

Experts have long expressed concern about coronavirus cases spiking when the weather starts to turn cold, and Sunday’s dusting of snow across the Salt Lake Valley indicated that time is nigh. While temperatures in Salt Lake City should climb back into the mid-60s for about a week starting Thursday, they are predicted to take their seasonal slide beginning in early November.

And the virus just might thrive in cold weather.

Researchers at the University of Maryland have found, according to a New York Times article, “that some viruses persist longer in colder and drier conditions; that aerosolized viruses can remain more stable in cooler air; that viruses can replicate more swiftly in such conditions; and that human immune systems may respond differently depending on seasons.” The article said all of that seems to be playing out in Alaska. That state remained largely unregulated in the summer without many outbreaks but has seen a drastic increase in cases that correlates with the drop in temperatures.

The chill in the air also raises some more obvious issues when it comes to avoiding contracting COVID-19.

Restaurants will soon be packing up their patio dining, and family gatherings will be moved indoors. Outdoor church services, once a quaint novelty, become considerably less attractive when snowsuits and mittens are involved. And studies have shown the virus’s rate of spread is considerably higher in enclosed areas than those with plenty of air movement and sunshine.

That’s what has Stenehjem most concerned.

“Respiratory and viral infections peak in the winter, whether it’s influenza, the rhinovirus or other respiratory viruses,” he said. “And one of the major causes of this is the fact that we’re closer together, and we don’t have the ventilation. We get more viral transmission. And that will inevitably happen with the coronavirus.”

The combination of those viruses plus COVID-19 could be crippling to the heath care system. Each year since 2010, the flu has killed 12,000 to 61,000 people in the U.S. annually and hospitalized between 140,000 and 810,000. If a bad flu season collides with the coronavirus, it could be a disaster.

Then again, the state is currently well on its way toward calamity even without other viruses piling on, Stenehjem said. The hospitalizations resulting from the current surge, which won’t be seen for another couple of weeks, could be enough for that.

“I think it’s going to come to a head before influenza gets here,” he said, noting the flu usually peaks in January and February. “It’s going to come to a head here in the next number of weeks in terms of the capacity of our health care system and the capacity of our health care workers. And I think that, you know, the crisis that we are currently in and [what] it’s devolving into could certainly evolve faster than influenza getting there.

“We’re going to need to do something drastic, even before the flu season gets here.”

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