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On a table in their Rose Park home, Juan Rodriguez-Galvez’s family assembled flowers, candles and photos as an altar for their husband and father for Day of the Dead.
As Jose Rodriguez Hernandez, 33, prepared this year for the Mexican holiday, which begins Sunday, he remembered his dad as “a hardworking family man” who “lived for his wife and kids” and liked to fish on the weekends.
When Rodriguez-Galvez died Wednesday at the age of 57 of complications from COVID-19, his family couldn’t be with him at the hospital. Instead, they said goodbye over Zoom as he was taken off a ventilator.
“That was probably the hardest part to go through,” Rodriguez Hernandez said Saturday. “You hear about it, but it’s really hard to watch your loved one pass away without being there to hold their hand, to let them know that they’re not alone.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has become “politicized,” Rodriguez Hernandez said, his family hopes sharing their story helps provide a “human face” to the effects of the virus.
On Friday, Utah surpassed 600 deaths from COVID-19 and set another daily record with 2,292 new cases. The numbers remained high Saturday, as the Utah Department of Health reported 1,724 new cases.
The state has recorded over 11,000 new cases this week alone, and the three new deaths brought the state’s death toll to 604. UDOH said 317 coronavirus patients were hospitalized, just shy of the daily record of 318 set this week.
“Utah’s situation remains critical,” Gov. Gary Herbert tweeted Saturday after meeting with Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The doctors visited the Beehive State Saturday as part of a tour of Western states, which are reporting the nation’s highest infection rates. In addition to the governor, they met with leaders of local hospital systems at the University of Utah.
Dr. Thomas Miller, chief medical officer at University of Utah Health, attended the meeting and said they discussed how to increase testing and the importance of people wearing masks.
President Donald Trump has said he has no problem with mask-wearing while mocking others for doing so, the New York Times reported Friday, when Trump called a Fox News host “politically correct” for wearing one during his rally in Michigan.
“Our statistics and their [federal] statistics show that things will get worse before they get better,” Miller said. But if people wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines, he said, Utah can bring its numbers down and “get through this.”
Medical examiners are “scrambling” to keep up as COVID-19 deaths rise, said Erik Christensen, the state’s chief medical examiner.
After surpassing 500 deaths on Oct. 8, Utah crossed the 600 mark less than a month later. The state recorded 100 deaths on May 26, 200 deaths on July 8, 300 deaths on July 30, and 400 deaths on Aug. 26.
A recent CDC forecast estimates there will be between 33 and 37 deaths per week in Utah over the next four weeks. The forecast is an “ensemble” prediction, aggregating a variety of predictive models.
Most people who die of the virus are older and have other medical conditions, Christensen said. During surges like the one happening now, more young people are dying because there are higher case numbers overall, he said. Many people with other medical issues were managing their chronic conditions until they got COVID-19, according to Christensen.
“They get sick and then they’re gone,” he said. “It’s sad.”
The three deaths reported Saturday were a Duchesne County man between the ages of 25 and 44, a Utah County woman between 45 and 64, and a Washington County man between 65 and 84.
Rodriguez-Galvez tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month after showing symptoms, according to his son. Rodriguez Hernandez and his two brothers, who live with their father and mother in Salt Lake City, also tested positive, and they had a range of symptoms, from a cough to body aches to losing their sense of smell and taste, he said.
In recent days, Rodriguez-Galvez was starting to feel better, and his family kept monitoring him. On Saturday, Rodriguez Hernandez said his brother noticed Rodriguez-Galvez on the bed, “not breathing correctly” after getting out of the shower. When their father became unresponsive, they called 911, he said.
Rodriguez-Galvez was taken to Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, where doctors told the family that he had pneumonia. Later, Rodriguez Hernandez said they got a call that his father had had a stroke.
“From there, it was never good news whenever I talked to the doctors,” Rodriguez Hernandez said. “His condition just kept deteriorating, really, with every CT scan that they did.”
On Sunday, Rodriguez-Galvez was moved to the ICU at the University of Utah and was intubated.
“Our biggest request and our biggest ask from the doctors was to be able to see our dad,” Rodriguez Hernandez said. It wasn’t possible to visit in person because of COVID-19 precautions, but they were able to talk to Rodriguez-Galvez three times on Zoom before he died.
Rodriguez Hernandez said his family was thankful to their friends and community members who have supported them “through such a hard time,” and they want to “honor” Rodriguez-Galvez by telling his story.
Hopefully, he said, it makes people think twice before going out without a mask or attending a social gathering “where they’re putting themselves and their families at risk.”
‘This pattern is nationwide’
After meeting Saturday with Birx and Redfield, Herbert tweeted, “For some time now, our data has shown that social gatherings are the main source of COVID-19 spread.”
“Dr. Birx and Redfield confirmed this pattern is nationwide,” the governor said. “Because of this, committing not to socialize with people outside your household is the best thing you can do to stop the virus, protect our hospital capacity, and save lives.”
Herbert said they “discussed targeted strategies to end the current surge in infections” and “we will share more soon.” In the meantime, he encouraged people to wear masks, as he has been doing for months.
Birx and Redfield told Utah medical leaders that “a number of universities around the country” had converted their research laboratories to increase their testing and monitor COVID-19 on campuses, Miller said. That way, they can identify people with symptoms and isolate the spread, he explained.
The doctors also discussed increasing states' supplies of the BinaxNOW test from Abbott Laboratories, according to Miller, which is a “point of care” test that provides results quickly, similar to a pregnancy test. Instead of waiting days for results from a lab after going to a COVID-19 testing site, this type of test gives results in about 15 minutes, he said.
It’s not something people could buy in a grocery store, since it requires someone who knows how to use the test to help make sure it’s accurate, Miller said. But it could be helpful for places such as nursing homes, hospitals, colleges, schools and businesses to be able to test regularly, he said.
UDOH reported 8,186 tests on Saturday, and a rolling seven-day average for the percentage of positive tests of 18.4%.
Utah has had one of the lowest death rates from COVID-19 in the country, according to the CDC. And while we don’t know exactly why that is, Miller said, he had a few ideas that could help explain.
Utah has a young population, Miller said. Plus, early on in the pandemic, “Utahns stood together and they avoided going to bars and restaurants and stayed home like many other people did,” which he said helped.
Miller also credits the “top notch” medical and hospital systems in Utah. While medications help, “the way you save lives in COVID is good, old-fashioned nursing and doctoring in the intensive care unit,” he said.
Utah has been able to manage ICU beds and make sure patients have the care they need, Miller said.
— Tribune reporter Sara Tabin contributed to this article.