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As Utah reported 26 more people have died from COVID-19, a single-day record, doctors repeated their one-word plea to residents wanting to gather in large groups for Thanksgiving: Don’t.
“Any gathering, no matter how small, is going to increase the transmission of COVID-19,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, in a virtual news briefing Wednesday. “We plead with you to stay within your homes, stay within your families.”
Wednesday’s deaths bring the state’s overall death toll due to COVID-19 to 834. UDOH identified the 26 people whose deaths were reported Wednesday as:
• Two Box Elder County men: One between the ages of 65 and 84, the other older than 85.
• Four Davis County residents — a woman between 65 and 84 and three men: One between 25 and 44, one between 65 and 84, one older than 85.
• A Duchesne County man older than 85.
• Seven Salt Lake County residents — three men: One between 25 and 44, one between 45 and 64, one between 65 and 84; and four women, one between 65 and 84, and three older than 85.
• Two Sanpete County men, both between 65 and 84.
• A Summit County woman, between 65 and 84.
• Six Utah County residents — Two men, one between 65 and 84 and one older than 85; and four women, one between 65 and 84 and three older than 85.
• Three Washington County women, one between 45 and 64 and two older than 85.
The number of new COVID-19 cases was 1,781, the lowest that statistic has been since Nov. 3. The average positivity rate, a rolling seven-day average, is down to 22%, after hitting a high of 24.6% two weeks ago.
However, UDOH also reported that 570 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized in Utah — a single-day record.
Hospitalizations from COVID-19 cases are approaching capacity at many of Utah’s hospitals, Stenehjem said. If Thanksgiving becomes a “super-spreader” event as public health experts have warned, he added, “those hospitalization numbers will further increase through the month of December and into the Christmas holiday.”
Utah’s hospitals are already juggling staff, opening extra ICU wards, hiring extra nurses, and bringing in non-hospital doctors to handle the workload, Stenehjem said. Intermountain announced this week it is looking at postponing some “non-emergent” surgeries — operations such as hip replacements that can be held off until later, though that means patients in chronic pain continuing to suffer, Stenehjem said.
Stenehjem said he has seen the effect the surge in COVID-19 cases has had on doctors and nurses. “Our caregivers are tired. Sometimes they’re frustrated, and downright angry” when they see people in stores or restaurants, not following the often-repeated guidelines to wear masks or maintain social distancing. “We know those activities we witness in our communities are leading to increased deaths in our communities,” Stenehjem said.
Stenehjem repeated the health recommendation that people only gather for Thanksgiving with people in their own home — and avoid traveling to other houses, or inviting friends and relatives in from other places.
“The real risk is you will be welcoming somebody into your home who is asymptomatic,:” Stenehjem said. “The home is an opportunity where we let our guard down. We take our masks off. We eat food together.”
Surges in COVID-19 cases hit after Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day and Halloween, Stenehjem said, as people gathered to celebrate those holidays. But gatherings on those days were usually outdoors — barbecues and trick-or-treating — where with Thanksgiving celebrations, “it’s going into winter, and outside isn’t a great option,” he said.
Dr. Travis Mickelson, director of behavioral health integration for Intermountain, said mental health experts “appreciate how many of us are really struggling, and really needing [a] level of social connectedness right now.”
Mickelson suggested alternatives to large gatherings to find that sense of connection. “Might there be something they can do in the way of helping someone else? Altruism is found to be a way to show that connectedness,” Mickelson said. “Could that person go outside? Go for a walk in nature? That also raises social connectedness.”
The perpetual worries of the pandemic can trigger the fight-or-flight response in people, adding to people’s stress levels. Because “our brains tend to focus on the negative,” Mickelson said people can try to counter that by, at the end of the day, identifying three good things that happened in their day. Mindfulness activities — such as meditation and deep-breathing exercises — can also reduce the physical effects of stress, he said.
“That can be as powerful as anything else at managing stress and anxiety,” Mickelson said.
Studies have shown that with contemplating the good things in a day for two weeks, “the benefits can last for six months,” he said.
The state reports it processed 13,062 COVID-19 tests in the last day. UDOH reported 15,528 tests processed on Tuesday, and 7,462 on Monday.
Most test sites will be closed Thursday, for the Thanksgiving holiday, and many will run with reduced schedules through the weekend. The state’s health department is also taking Thursday off, and will not be updating case counts and the UDOH dashboard until Friday.