Coronavirus in Utah: Thanksgiving week dip no indicator of better times ahead

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pedestrian wears a mask on Main Street, in downtown Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.

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While people across Utah found many reasons to be thankful last week, a dip in COVID-19 cases probably shouldn’t be one of them.

A week after coronavirus cases surged to all-time highs, the state saw what appeared to be good news over the holiday week. It reported fewer total positive tests — including 1,722 on Sunday — and also saw a decline in the weekly positivity rate, which measures the percentage of people tested over a seven-day span who were found to have the virus.

Consider those numbers potentially false positives.

“We saw surges after every holiday: Memorial Day, Labor Day and Mother’s Day,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, said. “We know we’re going to see one here on Thanksgiving. It’s just a matter of how high and how bad.”

On the positive side, Stenehjem said, the numbers indicate the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on gatherings and extracurricular activities that Gov. Gary Herbert put in place two weeks ago are working. However, they do not yet reflect the ramifications of the governor’s lifting of some of those safeguards last Monday. Plus, the numbers are somewhat skewed because they reflect a week in which fewer people got tested. And, of the 6,143 tests reported by the state Sunday, 28% came back positive.

In addition, deaths and hospitalizations continued to surge to unprecedented levels.

With five new deaths reported Sunday, a near-record 75 people died in the past week. The week prior, 77 people died from the virus, giving November the dubious honor of having the most coronavirus deaths in Utah since the pandemic started. Of the 868 deaths in the past nine months, 262 — or 30% — died in November.

The seven-day average death rate actually peaked on Thanksgiving, with 1.71% of those who had COVID-19 dying from it. It marked the first time since August that the death rate cracked 1%.

The people who died most recently from COVID-19 according to the state’s Sunday report include:

  • A Weber County woman between the ages of 65 and 84.

  • Three Utah County men, two between the ages of 65 and 84, and one older than 85.

  • A Salt Lake County man older than 85.

The fatalities from the virus will likely get worse before they get better. Utah set a record Saturday for people currently hospitalized due to the virus with 573. That tally dropped by nine Sunday to 564. Nearly 85% of the state’s ICU beds are occupied.

“The challenge is going to be,” Stenehjem said, “it’s going to be really hard for us to accommodate another post-Thanksgiving surge on top of the level that we’re currently at.”

The strain on the health care system, which professionals have long feared was coming, has already prompted hospitals to ration care and could ultimately force them to triage patients based on who is most likely to survive.

“Standard ICUs are full. Period. We’re now talking about ‘extended access’ ICU. So the care is different,” Stenehjem said recently. “We’re having to ask providers to do things that they aren’t comfortable with.”

Sunday’s new coronavirus cases bring the total for the week to 16,633. That’s 6,735 less than last week, when daily new cases topped 3,000 for all but one day.

The dip is less precipitous that it appears, though, because fewer people were tested over the days around Thanksgiving, when some testing sites were closed. The state reported 73,282 people were tested last week compared to 100,210 the week of Nov. 16-22.

The weekly positivity rate stayed consistent at 21.4%. That’s below the high-water mark of 24.6% from Nov. 16 but remains higher than in any other month this year.

Stenehjem warned the high infection rates could drift into the Christmas season, especially if people didn’t take precautions during Thanksgiving. People who caught COVID-19 while crammed with friends and relatives around a table eating turkey and stuffing won’t start showing up in case counts until around Friday. They’ll start filling hospital beds around Dec. 12 and dying shortly after that — just as the holiday cycle starts again.

“I would anticipate actually Christmas looking a lot like Thanksgiving this year,” he said, “based on the current trajectory in our numbers and potentially — depending on how bad the Thanksgiving surge is — our hospitals being even more overwhelmed than they currently are.”

Despite the gloomy forecast, Stenehjem did see some reason for optimism, and some reason to be thankful, this Thanksgiving. Those who sacrificed tradition for safety, he said, will have kept things from getting even worse.

“A lot of Utahns really took this to heart and really said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to change my Thanksgiving Day plans for the sake of public health and to keep myself and my community safe,’” he said. “There are so many people — patients and co-workers and friends — that just said, ‘Nope, not this year.’ And those are the people we want to say thank you to for really changing the way you celebrate Thanksgiving this year.”