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Utah is seeing a summer rerun of the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Delta variant has helped drive new cases and hospitalizations to levels not seen for months, a leading doctor warned.
“We are in a very similar place to where we were last summer,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, during a COVID-19 community briefing broadcast Wednesday on Facebook Live.
University of Utah Health is postponing some elective surgeries “because COVID-19 is surging again,” said Dr. Kencee Graves, associate chief medical officer for inpatient services. (Intermountain so far has not delayed any elective surgeries, a company spokesman said.)
“This summer is different from last summer because half of us have been vaccinated,” Graves said during a virtual news conference Wednesday. “But some people are living as if the pandemic is over.”
The Utah Department of Health reported 873 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday — the most in a single day since Feb. 17, when there were 1,148. The rolling seven-day average of new cases is 611, which is the highest it’s been since Feb. 28, when it was 634.
Webb warned that Utahns “have to face the possibility of social restrictions” — such as wearing face masks and keeping 6 feet away from other people — that were put in place last year as case counts, hospitalizations and deaths increased.
The difference, Webb noted, is that now “all of that can be prevented through vaccination.”
UDOH, in announcing Wednesday’s numbers, issued yet another plea for people to get vaccinated.
“We have the tool to end the disruption and inconveniences of COVID-19 on our lives and the economy — vaccination,” the department’s statement said.
“More than 186 million Americans have chosen to get vaccinated under the most intense safety monitoring in history, it added. “In Utah, more than 1.6 million Utahns have had at least one dose and 1.4 million are fully vaccinated. Nearly all COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are now among those who have chosen to not get vaccinated.”
To date, there have been 3,110 recorded “breakthrough” cases in Utah — people who test positive for the virus two weeks or more after they were fully vaccinated. One out of every 471 people who have been fully vaccinated has tested positive; one out of 6,172 (a total of 236 patients) has been hospitalized; and one out of 161,845 (or nine people) has died.
“We hear about the breakthrough cases,” Webb said, “but what we don’t hear about is the denominator — the larger number of people overall who have been vaccinated and who are protected against COVID.”
UDOH pointed to “studies from around the globe” that “continue to show the vaccines work” — that they are “safe and effective” and “serious side effects are rare.” The department went on to urge Utahns to “seek out credible information about the vaccines from their healthcare provider and reputable health organizations.”
In Utah, free vaccinations are available to anyone 12 or older, and there are “hundreds” of vaccine providers across the state, UDOH noted. Sites and events offering vaccine can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov.
In July 2020, Utah was in the midst of a summer boom, with the seven-day rolling average of cases ranging from 462 to 669 cases per day. That figure dropped into the 300s in August 2020, then started rising again into the fall and winter, spiking into the thousands per day.
This week, the number of positive COVID-19 tests per 100 tests is 19% higher than the same figure in July 2020, according to Erin Clouse, strategic engagement manager for University of Utah Health. And Utah is seeing 45% more hospitalizations and 23% more ICU beds in use this July than last July.
Last July, Graves said, “we were masking, we were socially distancing. We were working from home, we were limiting our trips to the store. … Now, it looks like things are normal when you go outside.”
Graves said she was “very alarmed” by Wednesday’s case count of 873. “I hope this does not become our seven-day average,” she said. “My feeling is this is going to get worse before it gets better,” she said, adding she believes rates won’t hit last winter’s levels “because half of our population has been vaccinated.”
Both Webb and Graves said they are concerned about what the numbers will look like this fall, when children — including those age 11 and younger, who are not yet eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine — return to school.
Doctors and health experts will work with school districts, Webb said, to identify ways to keep the virus’s spread in check in schools, including testing and contact tracing.
Webb also urged parents to have their children wear masks in school, even if the Utah Legislature has decreed that no school district can require a mask rule. “We know that they work,” Webb said. “They were the tool that allowed Utah schools to stay open all last year.”
One reason Utah doctors say they are concerned about the surge in cases: There are fewer health care workers available to treat patients.
“We do not have the deep bench we had last summer,” Graves said.
Last year, she said, University of Utah Hospital opened 20 additional ICU beds on May 29, anticipating the rise in cases. Now, she said, “we don’t have the nurses to be able to work those extra shifts. We don’t have the respiratory therapists, we don’t have the support services. … The COVID pandemic has been very, very hard on health care workers.”
Graves said the University of Utah Health system has about 700 job vacancies right now. Intermountain — which employs 42,000 people in Utah — has about 3,500 openings, clinical and nonclinical, throughout its system in Utah, Nevada and Idaho, a spokesman for Intermountain confirmed.
Webb said there is concern among health care workers that people have grown weary of hearing about the pandemic.
“There is certainly a sentiment,” Webb said, “that the community is so tired of this, they’re ready to abandon the precautions that worked over the winter.”
Another growing sentiment, Webb said, is that health care workers “are worried about being abandoned.”
“The reality is the pandemic is not over,” Webb said. “This is a terrible disease that affects people’s lives and livelihoods. It’s affecting more Utahns every single day.”
Vaccine doses administered in past day/total doses administered • 6,434 / 2,963,291.
Utahns fully vaccinated • 1,456,605.
Cases reported in past day • 873.
Deaths reported in past day • Four: A Salt Lake County woman between the ages of 25 and 44, a Salt Lake County man 45 to 64, a Uintah County woman 45 to 64, and a Utah County man 45 to 64.
Tests reported in past day • 5,004 people were tested for the first time. A total of 9,335 people were tested.
Hospitalizations reported in the past day • 295. That’s two more than on Tuesday. Of those currently hospitalized, 121 are in intensive care, two fewer than on Tuesday.
Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 17.4%. That’s higher than the seven-day average of 13.4%.
The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Wednesday’s rate was 9.4%, about the same as the seven-day average of 9.3%
Totals to date • 425,603 cases; 2,424 deaths; 18,204 hospitalizations; 2,872,453 people tested.