Utah coronavirus cases up 1,897 Monday, with a drop in testing

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Shoppers and commuters wear masks in downtown Salt Lake City, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

With 1,897 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, Utah’s rate of new diagnoses declined slightly alongside a sharp drop in testing.

The Utah Department of Health on Monday reported a seven-day average of 2,312 new positive test results per day — the lowest rate since Nov. 6. But with fewer than 5,000 new tests results reported, Monday was the third day in a row that testing has been far below the weeklong average of about 12,000 new results per day.

It will take a few days to see how much the Thanksgiving weekend — when many people traveled or got together in large gatherings to celebrate the holiday — will affect COVID-19 case counts or hospitalizations, said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, in a Monday videoconference call with reporters.

New case counts and hospitalization levels have stabilized in the past week, Vento said, but health experts are concerned another surge could hit in the next week or two.

”We’ll certainly be concerned about, and closely monitoring, what happens in the next week and two weeks,” Vento said, noting that case counts have spiked after other holidays during the pandemic.

Vento’s advice to people who visited or hosted relatives from outside their homes during Thanksgiving is “make an assumption that you could have been exposed.” That means getting tested for COVID-19, and going into quarantine until one is sure they don’t have the virus, he said.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 871 on Monday, with three fatalities reported since Sunday:

  • A Uintah County man, age 45 to 64.

  • A Utah County woman, age 65 to 84.

  • A Washington County woman, older than 85.

Hospitalizations held steady on Monday, with 560 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 566 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — a record-high average. And for the first time since the pandemic began, there have been more than 200 Utah coronavirus patients receiving intensive care for each day for a week.

At Utah’s major hospitals, ICUs have been about 87% full, on average, for the past week — slightly below the peak average of 92% a week ago, but above the 85% threshold that indicates those hospitals’ ICUs are effectively overwhelmed. Hospital administrators have said the occupancy percentages reported by the state account for ICU beds, but not for staffing — which they say has dropped by hundreds in Utah as nurses and doctors are required to quarantine or stay home to care for sick family members.

It also doesn’t account for high demand for certain specialists and equipment, as COVID-19 patients now make up about 40% of everyone admitted in Utah’s ICUs. Doctors have said it is unprecedented for such a high percentage of patients to be admitted for the same condition, which means they need many of the same resources. In mid-October, by comparison, less than 20% of all ICU patients were being treated for coronavirus, according to state data.

If needed, Gov. Gary Herbert would have to formally authorize hospitals to begin rationing ICU admission to the patients who are most likely to survive — something no Utah health care provider has requested so far during the pandemic. But doctors and nurses say they instead are having to dial back the level of care that many patients are getting in order admit everyone who has needed intensive care in the past few weeks.

In total, 8,135 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, with more than 1,100 Utahns reported hospitalized for the virus in the past two weeks.

For the past week, 21.5% of all tests have come back positive — a rate that indicates a large number of infected people are not being tested, state officials have said.

Infection rates were highest in Wasatch, Sanpete, Utah, Cache, Washington and Morgan counties, where at least 1 in every 75 people has tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks — meaning their cases are considered “active.”

The northern part of Orem had the highest infection rate of any one community, with active cases diagnosed in 1 in every 47 residents.

Meanwhile, the TriCounty Health District, which covers the Uinta Basin counties in northeast Utah, reported more coronavirus hospitalizations per capita than any other area in the state.

As cases continue to rise, the Utah Senate formalized new leadership within the Utah Department of Health on Monday, confirming Richard Saunders as interim director of the department after he took the post in August.

His unanimous confirmation comes after the Legislature tweaked state law this summer to allow Saunders to serve in the post. Utah law previously mandated that the health director have at least seven years of professional experience in public health, with at least five of those in a senior-level administrative position, if he or she is not a physician. State law now allows the executive director of the Utah Department of Health to not be a physician if he or she has only five years of experience in the public health field and three of those in a leadership position, paving the way for Saunders to serve in the position.

Several lawmakers raised concerns during debate of the bill about diminishing the standards for the post — especially during a pandemic — for a specific candidate. Others argued that the move was appropriate, saying that the Health Department director needs more management and administrative skills than medical expertise.

There was no sign of that debate during the Senate’s confirmation proceedings on Monday. But at least one lawmaker took the opportunity to raise concerns about the direction the Department of Health has taken during the pandemic.

Sen. Wayne Harper said he voiced concerns with Saunders on Monday about “some things that have gone on” within the department — including public health orders issued by leaders there to stem the spread of the coronavirus — and had found a listening ear.

“I believe that he is sincere and committed to go over and take a look at some of the things that need to happen so we can improve the Department of Health,” Harper said. “I’m going to take him at his word and rely on that.”

With Saunders’ “commitment to work for us,” the West Jordan Republican voted with the rest of his colleagues to confirm him to lead the Health Department on an interim basis.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporters Taylor Stevens and Sean P. Means contributed to this report