Utah’s coronavirus cases up nearly 4,000 on Thursday

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Intermountain Healthcare medical crews perform COVID-19 testing at their Salt Lake InstaCare location at 389 S. 900 East on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.

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Utah reported a record-shattering 3,919 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, with record-high hospitalizations and the virus' deadliest single week since the pandemic began.

Between 4.5% and 5% of those cases will end up in the hospital, Gov. Gary Herbert said at a Thursday news conference. “Those numbers should be alarming to all of us,” he said, warning that the state’s hospitals could be overrun if the case numbers don’t come down.

The state’s previous record for the number of daily cases was 2,987, reported Nov. 6.

For the past week, the state has averaged 2,738 new positive test results a day, continuing a streak of new record highs, the Utah Department of Health (UDOH) reported. The record number of cases, Herbert said, “should cause us all to take stock, and look at what we’re doing individually to slow this thing down.”

Herbert added that he hopes a vaccine will be available in Utah as soon as in four or five weeks, and “certainly by the first of the year.” The first doses, he said, would go to first responders, health care workers and people in high-risk groups.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 687 on Thursday, with nine fatalities reported since Wednesday:

  • A Davis County man, older than 85.

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

  • A Salt Lake County woman older than 85.

  • A Sevier County man, age 65 to 84.

  • A Uintah County woman, age 65 to 84.

  • A Utah County woman, older than 85.

  • A Utah County man, age 45 to 64.

  • A Weber County woman, age 65 to 84.

Hospitalizations continued to rise Thursday, with 468 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported — another record high. More than 650 Utahns have been hospitalized in the past week, with 6,487 admitted since the pandemic began.

Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association, said the state’s hospitals are well into their “contingency care” protocols. “We have expanded every resource we have,” Bell said — including diverting patients to hospitals with lighter loads, setting up extra intensive care units, and bringing in medical staff from other disciplines.

ICU staffs in Utah are above the 85% capacity that hospitals consider “effectively full,” Bell said — and some hospitals are at 100% ICU capacity.

“There are limits to what our staff can handle, and limits to what our current configuration of beds can take care of,” said Dr. Katie Thomas, associate medical director at Intermountain Medical Center. It has opened overflow intensive care beds, as have LDS Hospital, University of Utah Hospital and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.

Primary Children’s Hospital has begun caring for adult patients in its ICU, and Riverton Hospital has opened its pediatric floor to non-ICU adult patients, Thomas added. Alta View Hospital in Sandy has opened more non-ICU beds, and Intermountain’s orthopedic specialty center in Murray is providing regular hospital care to absorb some overflow.

Now Intermountain Healthcare has brought in 190 “traveling nurses” from out of state, and 31 other nurses from New York City are taking shifts for two weeks, repaying the visit of about 100 Intermountain doctors and nurses to New York hospitals when cases there were peaking in April.

“In April in New York, there were days of absolute exhaustion and stress,” said Natalie Torrance, a nurse from New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “It was such a sense of relief to know we had just a few extra sets of hands. Now it’s our turn to return the favor.”

For the past week, 23.2% of all coronavirus tests in Utah have come back positive — a record-high rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said.

There were 13,926 new test results reported on Thursday, a record-high for a single day.

Herbert stressed the guidelines that support his emergency orders announced Sunday are devised by public health experts. “We ask people to wear masks, certainly when you cannot social distance,” Herbert said.

The orders include a statewide mask order, limit any social gatherings to people in the same households, and place a hold on all school extracurricular activities, including most athletic and intramural events.

The highest spread of the virus, Herbert said, occurs in “our casual social gatherings.” Herbert repeated that his emergency order asks Utahns to limit their social gatherings to the people in their immediate household from now to Nov. 23.

“It’s going to take a couple weeks to see if what we put in place is going to have any effect,” Herbert said. “if we’re all invested in, and all doing our part, we can … slow down the spread.”

Whether voluntarily or through a government mandate, "it’s going to be the modification of behavior that is going to allow us to get on top of this pandemic,” Herbert said.

The two weeks for the order is based on the incubation period of the virus, Herbert said.

However, infectious disease specialists have noted that hospitalizations often come seven to 10 days after the onset of symptoms — and medical experts had warned for weeks that a statewide mask order and other restrictions were needed to cope with the rising case rates.

The timing of the order was chosen, in part, to have that two-week period play out before the Thanksgiving holiday, Herbert said. But it’s not clear why it wasn’t enacted earlier. Herbert on Monday claimed the new measures weren’t delayed due to election results — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox secured victory in his gubernatorial race last week, and President Donald Trump’s defeat was announced Saturday after he for months downplayed the virus threat — saying that the order’s timing “has only to do with data” and “absolutely nothing to do with politics.”

“We see modifications in behavior," Herbert said on Thursday. “The question is: Is it enough? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

Local law officers refusing to enforce the emergency order — as Iron County’s sheriff said he would do — “certainly lessens the impact” of the order," Herbert said. “Law enforcement is meant to be there to enforce laws. They don’t create laws. Clearly, that’s not their prerogative.”

Iron County was one of 20 counties that reported record-high case numbers for the past two weeks — and those counties account for 98% of the state’s population.

Single-day increases in cases set records in several local health districts, with the most extreme rises in the Central Utah and Southwest Utah districts, and Wasatch and Utah counties. Case rates remained the highest in northern Orem, where more than one in every 50 people has been infected in the past two weeks.

Herbert said he and health experts are discussing what recommendations to give to families for Thanksgiving celebrations. People should weigh the risks of traveling, and gathering in large groups, he said.

“We want people to have an enjoyable holiday season, but we also want them to have a safe enjoyable holiday season,” Herbert said.

Within the next two weeks, Herbert said, he hopes the state will ramp up the number of tests – particularly on college campuses — from 100,000 to 250,000 a week.

Decisions about whether to close schools to in-person classes is being handled at the local level, he said. “Overall, [online teaching is] probably not as effective in learning as being in the classroom with the teacher,” Herbert said.

The order also puts a pause on extracurricular activities in the state’s schools, Herbert reiterated.

But during the high school football playoffs, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn noted, the state health department had every athlete, cheerleader and participant tested for COVID. Only 49 people were found positive, she said — a rate of only 3.6%.

Dunn said that she takes that as a sign that the high schoolers are following the COVID-19 protocols because they care so passionately about what they do. “We all need to start acting like high school athletes,” Dunn said.