Coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations surge in southwest Utah as vaccine rates remain low

Since early August, southwest Utah has reported more deaths per capita than the state’s other large health districts.

(Ranger Peterson) Friends and family pay tribute to Aaron Navarro at a fundraiser softball tournament on Sept. 10, 2021, less than a week after Navarro died from COVID-19 in St. George. Navarro and Nathan Spendlove, left, have long been instrumental in addiction recovery support groups and sports leagues in southwest Utah. Navarro's daughters, Dallas and Saleena Navarro, center and right, wear their father's jersey in his honor. The dates on the shirts signify a sobriety "birthday," or the date when recovery began.

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Aaron Navarro had already died once, which may explain why “It’s A Wonderful Life” was one of his favorite movies.

Navarro had flatlined during a medical emergency and was resuscitated in 2001 — exactly 20 years before his friends recently reenacted the film’s final scene, where the main character emerges from his darkest hour to find himself surrounded by all the grateful townsfolk he’d helped over the years.

“You changed my life, Aaron.” “Thank you for always believing in me, Aaron.”

But Navarro did not emerge, and the gathering in his honor ended quietly, with monitors and machines falling silent by his bed. A cellphone camera panned over the faces of his friends from St. George’s addiction recovery community, who had crowded into the waiting room at an already teeming hospital as he died for the last time.

“You showed me what a true friend was.” “We are going to continue to live like you.” “I love you, Aaron.”

As coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations again exploded statewide in the past two months, few parts of Utah have been hit as hard as the southwest. Since early August, those five counties — Washington, Iron, Garfield, Beaver and Kane — have reported far more deaths per capita than any of the state’s other large health districts.

(Jud Burkett | Special to the Tribune) The sun sets over Intermountain Healthcare's St. George Regional Hospital Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.

By mid-September, the number of patients in intensive care units in the region’s hospitals was averaging 134% of capacity, the Southwest Utah Health Department reported, with non-ICU beds being repurposed and some patients being taken to other parts of the state.

In communities where anti-mask rallies have been going on for more than a year and where vaccination rates are as low as 35%, COVID-19 is leaving cavernous holes as friends and families mourn the dead and survivors face months of recovery.

‘I thought that I was strong enough’

For a produce farmer, there could not be a worse time to be stuck inside.

Outside Heather Carter’s Cedar City home, Nature Hills Farm glows with shades of orange, gold and green. End-of-summer tomatoes and cucumbers are shifting to fall squash and homemade pie fillings. The farm’s annual Harvest Fest is underway, with cider pressing and pumpkins and a sunflower maze.

But Carter is spending the day “behind the scenes, inside the house,” she says. She sits in front of a screen with an oxygen canula at her nose, updating friends and farm fans on her progress since her family found her unconscious in the bathroom Aug. 29.

“I just don’t have the oxygen levels to keep my body going,” she says. “... I don’t have the stamina to talk to people for seven straight hours or to walk back and forth between events. I wish I did.”

Instead, she had washed and dried her hair, and soon would need to rest from the effort, she says. Talking is still enough of an exertion that Carter asked The Salt Lake Tribune to interview her via written messages.

This is nowhere near Carter’s norm. Videos and photos taken before COVID-19 show a healthy 48-year-old tilling, sowing seeds and chasing her dog on the farm.

“It’s rough for me because I am a go-getter, and it’s hard for me to be patient,” she says in a brief video update.

In fact, she says, her generally high level of health is the reason she didn’t get the vaccine.

“I thought that I was strong enough to withstand COVID if I did get it,” Carter says between breaths in a video she made the day after she returned home from a Cedar City hospital. “I’m very healthy. I run a farm. I eat farm food all the time. I exercise regularly. My immune system: Great. I’m like if COVID hits me, I’ll take my chances. ... That was my first mistake.”

Carter is in the majority in southwest Utah. Only 38% of Cedar City’s residents are vaccinated — the biggest city to rank among Utah’s 10 least vaccinated communities.

(Heather Carter) Heather Carter bails hay in May 2021 at Nature Hills Farm, which she operates in Cedar City. In August, Carter was hospitalized for COVID-19. As of October, Carter remained too ill for farm work but had regained enough stamina for household tasks like bathing and cooking.

And a lot of unvaccinated southwest Utahns are far more strident than Carter. When calls to vaccinate appear on the local health department’s Facebook page, they frequently are mocked with “laughing” reactions. Each week when Southwest Utah’s coronavirus data is posted, someone reliably links to a federal site for reporting adverse vaccine reactions, even though reports appear there without being verified. Memes depicting sheep getting vaccine boosters pop up on community pages.

But a lot of residents don’t have particularly strong objections to the vaccine, said Dr. Bryce Ferguson, director of the ICU at St. George Regional Hospital. When hospital staff try to find out whether a patient was vaccinated, he said, it often turns out it just wasn’t a high priority — in part because they, like Carter, didn’t think the virus would make them so very sick.

“It’s very surprising to a lot of patients and their families that come in, when they learn that the next step is to put them on the ventilator. ‘Yeah, but this person is so young. I thought only old people got put on ventilators,’” Ferguson said. " ... We never expect that we’re going to be The One.”

One recent ICU patient stood out in Ferguson’s memory.

“He looked at me right before he was put on a ventilator and said, ‘I keep asking myself, would I be in this situation if I’d been vaccinated?’” Ferguson recalled. “Five days later he was dead. That was the last thing he said. It just breaks my heart.”

Even as a survivor, Carter reached a conclusion similar to Ferguson’s patient. The virus has cost her time and presence that she can’t get back.

“I don’t care if you get vaccinated or if you don’t get vaccinated. I hate people telling you what to do,” she said in a video. “... But keep this in mind. I didn’t consider this aspect: The time I’ve lost working because I’m sick. The health decrease because I’m going to be recovering for months. The money — the hospital, ICU — who knows how much that’s going to be? Weeks of me being in the hospital and my family left on their own. My kids — I mean, [it’s] pretty traumatic for them.”

Carter begins to choke up.

“All of these things that might have been prevented by a vaccine, things that I didn’t even consider. I didn’t think about that. Because I really haven’t done my proper research. I was too busy.”

She pauses.

“Can’t be ‘too busy’ now.”

‘Everyone was in awe’

Navarro wasn’t vaccinated either, though his reason was different. It goes back to 2001, when he died the first time.

Navarro was suffering from Guillain-Barré syndrome, said his ex-wife, Katrina Navarro. It’s a rare autoimmune disorder in which a person’s immune system attacks their nerves, and in Aaron Navarro’s case, it caused near-total paralysis.

“In the hospital he died three times, but they brought him back,” Katrina Navarro said. Afterward, she said, “He had to learn to walk, he had to learn to talk — everything, all over again. I was still taping his eyes [shut, because he couldn’t blink] when he came home. The left side of his face was paralyzed.”

Aaron Navarro eventually regained his mobility, though his smile remained a bit crooked for the rest of his life, his daughter Dallas Navarro recalls affectionately.

But even before he fell ill in 2001, Navarro had begun to use meth, his family said. As he recovered from paralysis, his addiction grew worse and worse. He was in and out of jail, and in and out of the lives of his two daughters, Dallas and Saleena.

(Dallas Navarro) Aaron Navarro gives his daughter Dallas a "cow kiss" at her high school graduation. Navarro died from COVID-19 on Sept. 25, 2021 in St. George.

“Growing up, it felt like it was always the drugs with him, and they were so much better than what Saleena and I could be,” recalled Dallas, now 20. “I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t enough for my dad. I was doing everything I could.”

That contributed to both daughters’ struggles with depression, they said, and they both spent time in group homes and foster care after attempting suicide as teenagers.

It was after Dallas’ third attempt, while she was in a Utah County group home, that a switch seemed to flip in her father, who had learned of her illness and called her while he was in jail.

“When I heard his voice, I could not express to you the excitement, the joy, the fact that I knew he was OK — and there was something different about him,” she said. “We spent the entire hour of therapy just talking, catching up. He had his own car, he was in drug court, he was doing absolutely everything he needed to do.”

Dallas and Saleena had seen addiction devour others. They knew these recoveries don’t always last. But their father’s did.

“He was the addict that went from not being able to hold a job for a week, to being able to make a complete turnaround,” Dallas said. “Everyone was in awe. ‘No way, not Aaron.’”

That was because no one had really known him for a long time, Saleena said.

“When people are using, they’re not in their right mind,” said Saleena, 18. “I truly believe those drugs take over, and that’s not who they are. My dad would do or say the most foul things. I’m not afraid to say I hated my father. It was because he wasn’t my father.

“When he finally got clean, he showed everybody — everybody, who he truly was.”

Aaron Navarro joined Narcotics Anonymous and helped to start a softball league for St. George athletes recovering from addiction, which has taken him around the nation. As his collection of recovery chips grew, he became a mentor for others suffering from addiction, his daughters and friends said.

(Dallas Navarro) Aaron Navarro, 47, smiles in the dugout during a softball game. Navarro, who died Sept. 5, 2021 from COVID-19, helped found a softball league for people recovering from addiction in St. George.

When the pandemic began, it had been six years since he last used meth, six years since he’d gotten his life back. Again. He took the virus seriously, his daughters said.

But when the vaccine was released, there was some debate over whether people with a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome were too high-risk for it. Similar to longstanding concerns about the flu shot, scientists theorized that the vaccine could trigger a relapse of GBS. Initially, even Dr. Anthony Fauci urged survivors of GBS to avoid the vaccine.

Throughout the summer, federal health officials went back and forth on the risks and eventually concluded that the vaccine would be less dangerous than the coronavirus, even for those at risk of GBS. They have reached similar conclusions about flu shots, though they still are discouraged for some GBS patients.

After two decades of being warned against flu shots and early warnings against the COVID-19 vaccine, Aaron Navarro thought it was not an option for him.

“If he could have gotten vaccinated, I think he would have,” Dallas Navarro said. She said she’s heard some of his friends have gotten their vaccines since he died.

‘I’ll be right there’

On a Sunday afternoon about a month after her father’s death, Saleena Navarro set out to a clubhouse-like recovery facility in St. George. It’s not the sort of thing most 18-year-olds with no personal history of addiction do with their weekends, but for Saleena it was tradition.

For years, she’d been joining her dad as a “support” participant at his Narcotics Anonymous “home meetings” — his regular local group. And it was time to go back, even though her dad wouldn’t be there.

“I couldn’t not go,” she explained. “I may not be an addicted to anything but I’ve gone for six years. My dad has made them my family, made them my closest friends. I couldn’t picture my life without them. ... They adopted us, they’re our uncles and aunts.”

It was a hard meeting, she said. At one point a person committed to calling his sponsor about a challenge that week — but his sponsor had been Aaron Navarro.

“The look of destroyed-ness on his face. ... He can’t just call his sponsor. It just makes you see what everybody needs,” Saleena said.

Navarro had sponsored a lot of people through addiction recovery and was well known as someone who would stand by people after setbacks and mistakes, said his longtime friend Nathan Spendlove. When Spendlove relapsed earlier in his recovery, Navarro “was always there to check on me and make sure I was doing OK,” Spendlove said. That Christmas, when Spendlove was back in a treatment center, Navarro made sure his kids “didn’t go without.”

“They probably had one of their best Christmases that year,” said Spendlove, who alongside Navarro, later became a mentor for defendants in drug court.

It was those kinds of actions, big and small, that members of St. George’s recovery community remembered when Saleena posted on Facebook that Navarro had taken a turn for the worse as he was being treated for the coronavirus. His heart had stopped, and the family waiting for Dallas to drive from her home in Salt Lake City to St. George Regional Hospital before discontinuing life support. Friends replied immediately.

(Jud Burkett | Special to the Tribune) Drivers pass a digital billboard encouraging vaccinations on Interstate 15 near Exit 4 in St. George, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021. The billboard alternates between vaccination messages in English and in Spanish.

“Give me ten minutes, I’ll be right there.”

“We’ll be there in an hour. Coming down from Cedar.”

“On my way from Virgin.”

When Dallas arrived, “the entire second floor waiting room was full of people hoping they could say goodbye to him,” she said. About 50 people had shown up, Katrina Navarro said, and eventually someone called the police. The officers said they heard a big crowd was there but let them stay, Katrina said.

“Since they couldn’t go back and say goodbye to Aaron, we said, ‘Let’s FaceTime.’ Everyone passed [the phone] around the room, and everyone had a secret message or a certain nickname,” Katrina said as she and her daughters recounted the many goodbyes from the waiting room.

Other friends, recovery workers, and even a parole officer have since filled Aaron Navarro’s Facebook page with screen after screen of memories and testimonials. “U helped pull me outta some of my darkest moments.” “Thank you for taking me under your wing.” “Thank you for treating me like one of your own.”

“You taught me how to love unconditionally.” “You taught me to be a friend.” “So many broken hearts here, and many of them in recovery because you showed others it could be done.” “I can’t even put into words how much you impacted my life and my recovery.”

“No matter how many times I fell flat on my face and came crawling back into treatment you always were there welcoming me back with open arms.”

“U never stopped believing in me.”

“You never stopped believing in me.”

Having both partaken and shared from his well of second chances, Aaron Navarro died Sept. 5. He was 47.