Utah undercounted COVID hospitalizations by scores of patients, new data reveals

On Wednesday, for example, there were 61 more patients in hospitals than previously reported.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Syringes for Utah County residents to get their COVID-19 vaccinations in a former Shopko store in Spanish Fork, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.

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As Utah reported 7,033 new coronavirus cases Thursday and new record for the number of hospitalized patients, state health officials announced they have been undercounting such patients by scores in recent weeks.

For example, Wednesday’s hospitalizations — previously reported as a record 776 patients admitted — were actually higher than that. The updated counts show 837 patients were hospitalized as of Wednesday, a record high that was topped once again on Thursday, when UDOH reported 843 Utahns were hospitalized with the coronavirus.

The updated data show that the correct hospitalization figures in the fall were generally close to what was previously reported — sometimes a bit higher and sometimes a bit lower, with hospitalizations actually being overcounted in state reports released around the Christmas holiday.

But that changed as the highly contagious omicron variant swept across Utah in January. In recent weeks, the new data show Utah has been undercounting hospitalizations by scores of patients.

The state says this happened, in part, because of an error in its hospital reporting system, according to the Utah Department of Health. Rising rates of positive test results — and a lack of available tests — also played a role.

State officials already have called on Utahns not to get tested for COVID-19 since mid-January, when testing sites were overrun with patients amid a proliferation of new infections.

That effort to ration tests for the highest-risk patients means new cases almost certainly have been drastically undercounted — and hospital data was one of the few metrics left to ascertain whether the omicron variant had peaked in Utah.

[Read more: Utah officials still recommend not to get tested for COVID. Here’s why.]

”A lot of people ... pay attention to just the number of positive tests, and really the true marker of how severe this disease is, is hospitalizations,” Dr. Wing Province, medical director of Park City Hospital, said in a news conference Thursday.

Now, with hospitalizations even higher than reported and still rising, there is even less evidence that omicron is done wreaking havoc on Utah, even as the state reports fewer cases this week than last.

”With such a limited number of tests that are available out there, it could be that people are just stopping testing. And as a result, we’re seeing a decline in cases,” said Province, addressing a recent decline in new cases in Summit County.

There, Province said, some patients have been so desperate for tests that they are going straight to the hospital’s emergency room.

”We’re actually seeing people who are willing to pay for an ER [emergency room] visit just to get a COVID test, even though they really don’t have a lot of symptoms or severe disease. They’re still coming in just to get tested,” Province said. He noted that patients are not included in statewide hospitalization data unless they are admitted.

The state also confirmed six new COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 4,097.

The number of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients — the record 843 — is far higher than the record before this month: 606 patients in December 2020.

The number of COVID patients in intensive care units also rose Thursday, from 192 to 194. ICU patient counts also have been inaccurately reported by the state, but to a lesser degree than overall hospitalization numbers.

ICUs in the state’s larger, “referral” hospitals are now at 91.8% capacity — above the 85% threshold that hospital administrators have said is necessary to leave room for unpredictable staffing levels, new patients and availability of specialized equipment and personnel. ICUs in Utah’s referral hospitals have remained over capacity continuously since late August, nearly twice as long as during the previous fall and winter.

Statewide, 89.1% of all ICU beds are filled.

Find where to get vaccinated at coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine-distribution. Find where to get tested at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-covid-19-testing-locations.

Breakdown of updated figures

Vaccine doses administered in the past day/total doses administered • 5,458 / 4,783,868.

Number of Utahns fully vaccinated • 1,942,277 — 59.8% of Utah’s total population. That is an increase of 1,419 in the past day.

Cases reported in the past day • 7,033.

Vaccination status • Health officials do not immediately have or release the vaccination status of individuals who test positive, who are hospitalized, or who die. They do calculate the overall risk ratios of these outcomes depending on vaccination status, which is listed below.

Tests reported in the past day • A total of 35,767 people were tested.

Deaths reported in the past day • Six.

There were three deaths in Salt Lake County — a woman between the ages of 45-64, and a man and a woman 65-84.

The other deaths were a Davis County man 25-44; a Sanpete County woman 65-84; and a Washington County woman 45-64.

Utahns currently hospitalized with COVID-19 • 843. That is six more than the corrected number of 837 that UDOH is now reporting for Wednesday. Of those currently hospitalized, 194 are in intensive care — two more than reported on Wednesday.

Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate was 48.6% Thursday. That is higher than the seven-day average of 46.7%.

The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Thursday’s rate was 19.7%, lower than the seven-day average of 30.4%.

[Read more: Utah is changing how it measures the rate of positive COVID-19 tests. Here’s what that means.]

Risk ratios • In the past four weeks, unvaccinated Utahns were 11.3 times as likely to die of COVID-19 as vaccinated people were, according to a Utah Department of Health analysis. The unvaccinated also were 4.8 times as likely to be hospitalized, and 2.3 times as likely to test positive for the coronavirus.

Totals to date • 869,085 cases; 4,097 deaths; 30,846 hospitalizations; 8,808,242 tests administered.