As Utah’s coronavirus hospitalizations rise, health officials debate guidance for Thanksgiving

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Testing at the Utah National Guard’s mobile testing site for COVID-19 in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020.

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The number of hospitalizations for the coronavirus exploded Wednesday in Utah, with a record-shattering 541 patients concurrently admitted.

And with 3,071 new coronavirus cases reported Wednesday, Utah’s rate of new diagnoses continued to rise. For the past week, the state has averaged 3,161 new positive test results a day, continuing a streak of new record highs, the Utah Department of Health reported.

“This is really a time of great surge and great importance and urgency to drop the case count,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn told state lawmakers on Wednesday.

Even as case numbers and hospitalizations continue to rise, Richard Saunders, director of the Utah Department of Health, told the legislative panel Wednesday that he doesn’t expect guidance to change much when officials issue a new public health order after the current one expires Nov. 23.

He anticipates that the statewide mask mandate put in place earlier this month will remain as part of the new health order. But he said no new restrictions are expected on businesses, restaurants, bars or gyms.

And it doesn’t appear that the state plans to forbid Thanksgiving gatherings. Saunders said the department is taking a “serious look,” though, at how to regulate social gatherings within the public health order and is “working on wording that deals with whether that social gathering is inside your residence versus outside your residence.”

“We’re looking at that as a possible distinction,” he told the state’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee during an update on the coronavirus. “We’re also trying to discern what we specify in the order versus strong recommendations.”

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 740 Wednesday, with nine fatalities reported since Tuesday and one previous death removed from the count after further investigation.

The newly reported deaths include:

  • A Cache County man, age 65 to 84.

  • A Davis County woman, age 65 to 84.

  • Two Salt Lake County women, one age 65 to 84 and the other older than 85.

  • Two Salt Lake County men, one age 65 to 84 and the other older than 85.

  • A Summit County woman, age 65 to 84.

  • A Weber County man, age 65 to 84.

  • A Washington County woman, age 45 to 64.

Wednesday marked the end of the virus’ deadliest seven-day stretch since the pandemic began.

For now, the state is urging Utahns not to celebrate next week’s Thanksgiving holiday with anyone outside their households as part of an effort to stem the spread of the virus.

If families or friends do choose to gather, officials recommend that people keep celebrations small, wear masks and practice physical distancing.

“I like to think that if one person at your house was to become positive on Friday morning, how many people would have to be quarantined?” Dunn said. “We want that to be as few people as possible.”

Doctors at University of Utah Hospital drew a firmer line, discouraging all Thanksgiving gatherings with anyone outside one’s own household.

Because of the exponential way that the infection spreads, you can have an enormous amplifier effect,” said Dr. Andy Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious disease at the U. The state already has seen large surges of cases after holidays, he said, and “Thanksgiving has the potential to be the scariest one yet.”

Utah’s hospitals already are almost full, with staff being stretched thinner and thinner. The 541 Utah patients concurrently admitted were almost 30 more than were being cared for Tuesday. In total, more than 7,100 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, more than 700 of them in the past week.

That doesn’t include an all but inevitable spike in hospitalizations in the next two weeks, from the rise in cases this week. And the full consequences of a reckless Thanksgiving in Utah may not be fully visible until January, Pavia said — a development that would be regrettable with such rapid progress on vaccines.

“It’s going to take a couple of weeks for any surge that comes out of Thanksgiving to amplify,” he said. “There is an end in sight. It’s not right around the corner, it’s not in January. There’s no reason to risk people’s lives in January when there’s going to be a vaccine available [a few months later].”

Even Utahns who believe they have been extremely careful to avoid contracting the coronavirus should stick to their own households for Thanksgiving, said Dr. Carlos Gomez, associate professor of infectious diseases.

“We hear that all the time from our patients: ‘We’ve been doing a great job in social isolation,’” Gomez said. “That doesn’t explain the rates in the community. There is a false perception in the public that they are [consistently] doing the right thing. ... Clearly there are breaches.”

Pavia agreed.

“You’re only as safe as the most cavalier person. You can have done everything absolutely right, but if in that gathering of seven or eight people, one person has ... gotten infected, that in fact puts all of you at risk.”

Even those who already have been infected should avoid gatherings, warned Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious diseases specialist. It’s not known how long immunity lasts after infection.

“I would not use that as an excuse to be an outlier” among everyone who is staying home to protect the community, she said.

For the past week, 24.1% of all tests have come back positive — far above the 3% positivity rate that state health officials say would indicate the virus is under control. With such a large percentage of tests coming back positive, it is likely that many infected people have not been diagnosed, health officials have said.

The virus continued to spread most rapidly in Garfield, Sevier and Utah counties, followed by Salt Lake and Wasatch counties. In all five counties, more than one in every 75 people have tested positive in the past two weeks — which means they are considered to have active cases.

But the highest concentration of new cases remains in the northern neighborhoods of Orem, where one in every 41 people have tested positive in the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, the highest hospitalization rates per capita were in Southwest Utah, according to state data.

There were 13,351 new test results reported Wednesday, above the weeklong average of about 12,600 new tests per day.

And school-related cases continued to rise to record levels, with nearly 600 new cases among students and employees in the past day, UDOH reported. In the past week, at least 233 teachers have tested positive, and yet another school is entering its second two-week shutdown since fall term began. Brighton High in Canyons School District is closing for two weeks starting starting Wednesday.

One possible change to the state’s health guidance could be to ease quarantine requirements for businesses, Saunders said. That could mean someone who was in close contact in a business setting with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 would be able to stop quarantining after seven days with no symptoms and a negative test.

Rep. Brad Daw, R-Orem, who attended the interim meeting from home on Wednesday after testing positive for the coronavirus, stressed the infectious nature of the virus and the importance of following public health guidance to prevent its spread.

“When my unnamed family member got it, it did not take any length of time for it to spread to everybody else, and it spread very quickly and very thoroughly,” he said. “I think people ought to pay attention to that and realize these guidelines are not there to be mean, they’re there because they’re trying to prevent the spread. As you said before, our hospitals are at capacity. They’re not close. They’re not near. They’re there.”