‘If you’re unvaccinated, you should be worried this Fourth of July,’ Cox says as doctors warn of crowded Utah hospitals

’The COVID-19 pandemic is not over,’ a doctor warned.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Kencee Graves, Associate Chief Medical Officer for Inpatient Services at University of Utah Health, speaks during the Governor's Covid-19 briefing, at the Utah Capitol on Thursday, July 1, 2021.

Emergency rooms and intensive care units in Utah could fill over the Fourth of July weekend, state officials and health experts warn — because of a surge in COVID-19 cases and the usual holiday-related accidents.

“If you’re unvaccinated, you should be worried this Fourth of July,” Gov. Spencer Cox said. “The good news is, you can all get vaccinated before the Fourth of July.”

Cox reiterated that around 95% of the new cases of COVID-19, as well as hospitalizations and deaths, are people who have not received the vaccine.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is not over,” warned Dr. Kencee Graves, associate chief medical officer for inpatient services at University of Utah Health.

Hospitalizations and case counts have surged in recent weeks, Graves and Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, said Thursday at the state’s COVID-19 media briefing in the Utah Capitol.

The rolling 7-day average for COVID-19 cases in Utah, as of Thursday, was at 384 per day, Hofmann said. That’s compared to an average of 324 per day a week ago, and 213 a day a month ago, she said.

Part of the current surge of cases “are being specifically driven by outbreaks,” Hofmann said. A UDOH spokesman said the Utah County Health Department is investigating four separate outbreaks in overnight youth camps.

“These kids are not only becoming infected themselves, but exposing others at the camp, and when they go home,” Hofmann said.

Several months ago, Hofmann said, UDOH ran computer models that predicted the state would reach around 600 cases per day, “and we’re nearly there,” she said. Models run Wednesday are predicting the possibility of between 1,000 and 1,200 cases by September, “not taking into account any additional surge from a return to school.”

“We do not want to go back there,” Hofmann said.

In the University of Utah Hospital’s ICU, Graves said, all the COVID-19 patients there except one are unvaccinated. One of those patients, she said, is under 30.

“No one is safe from COVID, unless you’re vaccinated,” Graves said.

Also, Graves said, “our hospitals are full of people who delayed care for 18 months” during the pandemic — including transplant recipients who are at risk of COVID-19 because their immune systems are delicate.

In emergency rooms, Graves said, the Fourth of July weekend is “the most high-volume trauma weekend we have every year.” She said doctors routinely see victims of fireworks burns, ATV accidents and drownings during the holiday weekend.

“The biggest difference is that we had staff to run an additional ICU [last year], and we ran it for nine months, and we don’t have that staff now,” Graves said, adding that 4 million health care workers across America have left the profession. “It’s been really hard for our health care workers, and they’re tired. We cannot respond like we did in 2020.”

Cox ruled out “absolutely” any return to restrictions, including mask mandates or stay-at-home orders, because of the current surge. “We’re pleading for a return to sanity, and asking people to get their vaccines,” Cox said, adding that restrictions “won’t make a difference.”

Cox said, “we have the answer to all of this. And the answer isn’t restrictions, the answer isn’t to destroy people’s jobs, the answer isn’t to force people to wear masks. The answer is to get vaccinated.”

Back in late February, Cox promised that he would burn his face mask on the Fourth of July. “I beat that by a couple of months,” he said Thursday. “I have no problem with people wearing masks, at all. But it’s not something that I’m going to do.”

Cox cited mentioned one COVID hot spot with a broad impact: The Department of Motor Vehicles office in South Salt Lake City. Three employees there recently have come down with COVID-19, the state announced Thursday.

The office had six job positions unfilled because, the department said in a statement, “the federal unemployment benefits have made it difficult to recruit entry-level employees.” Some have argued that such benefits have led to a “labor shortage,” while other economists have disputed that. Either way, those benefits ended in Utah on June 26.

The DMV office will keep its drive-thru windows operating, but will only handle customers who need renewals and placards. Other services will be done by appointment. The DMV’s director, Monte Roberts, is encouraging people to go to other department offices, make requests online at dmv.utah.gov, or go to “On-the-Spot” stations around the state.