Utah’s COVID-19 hospitalizations higher now than before last year’s peak

Also, the usual winter respiratory illnesses, which went down last year because of public health moves like masking, are back.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Asher Williams, 12, gets his second COVID-19 shot from Lee Moss, a member of the medical reserve core as Salt Lake City’s westside residents get the opportunity to get vaccinated while also picking up a new winter coat and shoes for their children thanks to a partnership between Salt Lake City, Salt Lake Education Foundation, Salt Lake City School District, Salt Lake County Health, Operation Warm and Intermountain Healthcare at Rose Park Elementary on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

With hospitals already at or near capacity and high coronavirus case counts, Utah is “not in a good place going into the winter months,” according to one specialist in infectious diseases.

“We’re starting out at a place that doesn’t give us a lot of confidence,” Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician for Intermountain Healthcare, said Friday.

As of Friday, intensive care units at Utah’s larger, “referral” hospitals were 98% full — a level not reached until mid-December last year, when hospitals were approaching their worst patient loads of the pandemic.

An ICU is considered “at capacity” if 85% of its beds are full.

This week, Utah hospitals were caring for about 540 to 590 COVID-19 patients every day — about 100 more than the same dates last year, according to the Utah Department of Health.

And that’s just for COVID-19.

Last year, precautions taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus also helped to suppress outbreaks of other typical winter respiratory illnesses.

Now those diseases are back, Webb said.

“Especially in the younger populations, we’re seeing a very early respiratory viral season,” he said.

At Primary Children’s Hospital, for example, doctors were treating cases of the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, months before outbreaks usually occur. Now, overloaded with patients, the hospital is delaying surgeries for children.

With so many more non-COVID patients needing care alongside those being treated for the coronavirus, Intermountain hospitals have moved away from designated COVID-19 wards, Webb said, and now all ICU patients are being treated together.

“Those units are at or beyond capacity right now,” Webb said in a news conference Friday. “In most of the Intermountain hospitals, we’ve opened additional ICU beds and are struggling to staff those.”

So far Utah has managed to escape the worst outcomes of the Mountain West’s autumn surge in coronavirus cases. Hospitals in Idaho, for example, were rationing care statewide as COVID-19 outbreaks overwhelmed providers.

But the virus can make unpredictable shifts. Webb pointed to Colorado, where epidemiologists have been startled by a precipitous rise in cases since mid-October. Infection rates there have surpassed those in Utah, even though Colorado’s vaccination rates are relatively high.

If Utah sees a similar spike, as weather gets colder and residents shed precautions they might have taken a year ago, the state could find itself in the same bind Idaho was in a few weeks ago.

“We’re going into the winter without any leeway,” Webb said. “There’s no room for error.”

That means Utahns should continue taking precautions like masking and social distancing even as immunity levels rise, whether through vaccination or infection. The rise of the ultra-contagious delta variant this summer has shown the limits of immunity, even though vaccinations are still crucial, Webb said.

“We shifted the paradigm, maybe prematurely, to talking about the pandemic being over. To pulling back on those other complementary preventive measures. And then Delta hit and we we quickly recognized that while the vaccines are still very effective, they do wane,” Webb said. “...And so I think there’s been widespread disappointment as we’ve had to shift as a community from this early spring where we thought, ‘We’re done.’

About 68% of Utahns ages 12 and older have been fully vaccinated, UDOH reported on Friday. Children ages 5 to 11 have not been eligible for the vaccine long enough to be fully vaccinated, but about 7% have received one dose since federal regulators approved the Pfizer vaccine for that age group about a week ago.