Utah hospitals feeling strain of COVID-19 surge, a Logan doctor says

‘I personally wear a mask when I go to the grocery store,’ doctor says.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Registered nurse Clarece Glanville prepares the Pfizer vaccine as the Davis County Health Department holds a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the South Davis Senior Activity Center on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Utah hospitals saw the continuation of July's surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations over the Pioneer Day weekend.

The number of Utahns hospitalized with COVID-19 continued its summer surge over the Pioneer Day weekend, and the head of a Logan hospital says her staff is feeling the strain.

“We have high volumes of patients in the hospital, and we’re really nervous about our COVID numbers rising, because we remember what it was like when it was really bad — and I fear that we’re heading there again,” Dr. Taki May, medical director of Intermountain Logan Regional Hospital, said Monday.

The Utah Department of Health reported Monday that 343 Utahns were hospitalized for COVID-19 — 52 more than on Thursday, before the holiday weekend. Of that number, 152 are in intensive care, up 24 from Thursday.

UDOH reported that 2,269 new cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Utah during the holiday weekend. That raised the 7-day rolling average of cases to 646 per day — a level that, before this month, the state had not seen since February.

May, speaking in a community COVID-19 briefing by Intermountain Healthcare streamed over Facebook Live, said hospitals tend to see volumes of patients drop in late spring and early summer, “and we have not seen that” this year, she said. “We have been very busy. After the pandemic got rolling in April and May [of 2020], we really haven’t had a slowdown.”

The difference this summer, she said, is the stress the pandemic has brought to health care workers. “Some nurses have moved into other areas of health care,” May said. “Some have left the profession. Some have gone back to school. So here in Logan, as well as across the state and across the country, we’ve seen a real staffing problem.”

‘Breakthrough’ cases still rare

The great bulk of those coming down with COVID-19 — 89.7% of new cases in the last week, according to Intermountain Healthcare — have not been vaccinated against the coronavirus. May said she has heard from colleagues of unvaccinated people who have entered the hospital for COVID-19 and “recognize now that the vaccine would have been an opportunity for them.”

One patient recently, May said, was a so-called “breakthrough” case — someone who came down with COVID-19 after getting fully vaccinated.

“You hear about them because they’re unusual,” May said. “Every day you get in and drive your car, and you don’t think, ‘Oh, I could get into an accident today.’ We hear about accidents because they’re unusual. I think people need to change their mindset, and recognize that we hear about the scary stuff because it’s scary. We don’t hear about the mundane stuff, which is millions of people successfully vaccinated and avoiding COVID.”

In Cache County, where May lives, the vaccination rate is about 57%, “which is good but not great,” May said. Statewide, 63.7% of Utahns age 12 and up — the age group eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine — have received at least one dose.

May said she takes other precautions. “I personally wear a mask when I go to the grocery store,” she said, because of Cache County’s vaccination rate, and because her parents are both immune-compromised. Most people May sees at the store, she said, do not mask up.

May urged all Utahns to get vaccinated. “We really need the entire population to participate in the vaccination effort,” May said, “because that’s how we stop the virus in its tracks.”

Hospitals not requiring vaccines — for now

The federal Department of Veterans Affairs will start requiring its employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19, The New York Times reported — the first federal agency to do so. The VA operates more than 1,000 facilities nationwide, including a VA hospital in Salt Lake City and clinics and vet centers in 10 Utah cities.

For now, Utah’s four major hospital groups will not require employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — even after nearly 60 professional medical groups issued a joint statement Monday urging employers to mandate vaccines for health care workers.

University of Utah Health may consider such a requirement when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration fully approves a COVID-19 vaccine, a spokeswoman for the health system said Monday. The vaccines are currently approved under emergency use authorization.

Similarly, “Intermountain does not currently require the vaccine and is monitoring the data and situation,” said Jess Gomez, company spokesman. “We’re following the FDA process as they evaluate COVID-19 vaccines for full licensure.”

HCA/MountainStar hospitals “are strongly encouraging vaccination,” but not requiring it, a company spokeswoman said Monday.

Steward Health Care’s hospitals “have not formally instituted a nationwide mandate” to order employees to get vaccinated, said spokesman Jeremy Tunis. “Universal vaccination adherence for everyone who works in our facilities is the clear goal and expectation and Steward is working proactively to meet this objective as soon as possible.”