As Utah reports 24 more deaths from COVID-19, a doctor asks residents to stay safe for Christmas

With 2,612 new cases, the rate of new cases is holding steady.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Masks are a common sight at Salt Lake City's City Creek Center on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

As Utah saw another 2,612 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, with 24 more deaths reported, a Utah doctor said the holiday season will be a critical time for taking precautions to bring the state’s death rate down.

“Fingers crossed that Utah comes together as a community, like we did at Thanksgiving, when we didn’t see that big surge we were expecting because Utahns took this seriously,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare. “I’m hoping we see the same thing out of Christmas.”

For the past week, the state has averaged 2,419 new positive test results a day, the Utah Department of Health reported. That’s a bit lower than Tuesday’s average, and on par with where the average has been since Saturday.

With the 24 new fatalities, Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus rose to 1,196 on Wednesday. UDOH identified the 24 Utahns who died as:

• A Davis County man older than 85.

• A Morgan County woman between 65 and 84.

• Seven Salt Lake County women: Four between 65 and 84; three older than 85.

• Five Salt Lake County men: One between 45 and 64; three between 65 and 84; one older than 85.

• A Sanpete County woman between 65 and 84.

• A Tooele County woman between 45 and 64.

• Four Utah County residents, two men and two women, all between 65 and 84.

• Two Weber County women: One between 45 and 64, the other older than 85.

• Two Weber County men: One between 45 and 64, the other older than 85.

One previous death was removed from the overall death toll, pending further investigation.

UDOH has reported 100 deaths in the last seven days. The state could continue to see similar numbers, Stenehjem said at Intermountain’s weekly COVID-19 briefing on Facebook Live, as long as intensive care units stay full.

“As you start seeing that ICU capacity increase, our ICU census decrease, then you’re going to start seeing death rates decline,” Stenehjem said. “Until we don’t have our ICUs full of people with COVID-19, until that happens, you’ll still see high death rates, unfortunately.”

Hospitalizations rose Wednesday, with 560 patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. The state also reported that 88.5% of all ICU beds are filled; and 90.7% of ICU beds in the state’s largest hospitals are filled.

The rolling seven-day average positivity rate for tests is 23.7%. That’s level with where the average rate was Tuesday — and an indicator, health officials say, that many infected people still aren’t being tested.

The health department reported Wednesday that 9,601 more people had been tested since the previous day.

UDOH reported that 2,862 more people received the COVID-19 vaccine over the day before. Since the first vaccines were given out on Dec. 15, 11,380 people in Utah have received their first shot.

The vaccine rollout has targeted front-line health care workers in its first weeks — and that has lightened the mood for hospital staffs, Stenehjem said.

“Now that most of us have been vaccinated, that just gives us a little more of a sense of safety,” he said.

This season is “a really hard time both to work in the hospital and be a patient in the hospital, over the holidays,” Stenehjem said. “Especially when you can’t have visitors, for these COVID-19 patients.”

For caregivers, Stenehjem said, ”it’s hard … to be away from their families, taking care of patients that are suffering.”

Because of the pandemic, he said, Intermountain has discouraged staff from a holiday tradition: Potlucks.

“Doctors and nurses [usually] bring in food and you have a meal together — getting together and making the best of it if you’re in the hospital,” he said. “That’s not something you can do safely right now.”

Staffers have put up holiday decorations around the hospitals and, Stenehjem said, “there was an ugly sweater contest at our hospital.”

“The best gift” Utahns can give health care workers is to “be an advocate for our public health measures,” such as wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance,” Stenehjem said. “Spread the message of ‘Hey, listen, we have to do this together as Utah.’ This needs to be a community initiative, and we can get through this.”