As rural hospitals welcome COVID-19 vaccine, another 2,892 Utahns test positive for coronavirus and 9 more have died

Hospitals in Park City, Heber and Gunnison started administering the vaccine to workers this week.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center nurse Catherine Van Straten gives the COVID-19 vaccine to a co-worker on Wednesday. George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, is one of 113 VA Medical Centers across the country to receive the first limited supply of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

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The state’s rural hospitals were starting to see COVID-19 vaccine reach them Thursday, as health officials reported another 2,892 Utahns had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Hospitals in Park City, Heber and Gunnison started administering the vaccine to their workers this week, while others are gearing up to give out the vaccine after the Christmas weekend.

The expansion of the vaccine rollout will be a relief to Utah’s rural areas — particularly in parts of central and western Utah, where rates of new cases are reaching record highs.

For the past week, the state has averaged 2,379 new positive test results a day, down from Wednesday’s figure, the Utah Department of Health reported Thursday. However, the average positive test rate for the last seven days rose slightly to 24% — an indicator, health officials say, that many infected people still aren’t being tested.

Since the pandemic began, 260,589 Utahns have tested positive for COVID-19.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus rose to 1,204 on Thursday. (One previously reported death was removed from the total, pending further investigation.)

The nine Utahns whose deaths were reported Thursday were:

• A Davis County man between the ages of 45 and 64.

• Five Salt Lake County residents: Two men and two women, all between 65 and 84, and a man older than 85.

• Two Utah County residents: A woman between 25 and 44; and a man older than 85

• A Weber County woman between 45 and 64.

Hospitalizations held steady Thursday, with 561 patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. The state reported 88.4% of the state’s intensive care unit beds were filled, with 91.5% of the ICU beds in the state’s larger “referral” hospitals occupied.

Doctors and hospital administrators have said that figure does not account for staffing fluctuations, or for high demand on specialists and equipment when a large percentage of ICU patients are being treated for the same illness. In practice, doctors have said, care quality begins to deteriorate due to informal rationing that occurs once ICUs reach about 85% of capacity — a threshold Utah has surpassed since Dec. 1 and that large referral hospitals have exceeded since early November.

But ICU occupancy on Thursday was down a bit from last week, when Utah’s referral hospitals repeatedly surpassed 100%.

The state reported that tests for 10,631 people were processed since the previous day.

Another 3,442 vaccines were administered since Wednesday, bringing the total to 14,822. That number is expected to rise substantially after Christmas, when long-term care facilities and more rural hospitals start dispensing the vaccine.

Staff at Heber Valley and Park City hospitals received their first doses of the vaccine Wednesday, an Intermountain Healthcare spokesman said. And staff at Gunnison Valley Hospital in Gunnison started getting their shots Wednesday, according to a tweet Thursday from Fox13 anchor Amy Nay, whose father is a doctor there.

A spokeswoman for Mountain West Medical Center in Tooele said Thursday that the independent hospital received its vaccine shipment Wednesday, and staff will start getting their shots Monday morning.

Rural areas with high rates of new cases include Sanpete County, which includes Gunnison, where about 1 in 43 county residents had tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks — the highest infection rate in any Utah county, at any time during the pandemic. That rate rises to 1 in 34 within the towns of the Sanpete Valley.

In Millard County, 1 in 47 residents had tested positive in the past two weeks — which means their cases are considered “active” — with 1 in 43 in the Delta-Fillmore area.

Meanwhile, Beaver County reported a record-high rate of more than 1 in 52 residents with active infections. Locally, more than 1 in 70 residents had active infections in ten of the Utah’s 99 “small areas,” used by state officials to study health trends.

Apart from those in Sanpete and Millard counties, they are: northern Orem; Lehi; Eagle Mountain and the Cedar Valley; Saratoga Springs; Draper; Salem; Herriman; and Washington City.

The virus’s spread in rural Utah hit close to home with Gov.-elect Spencer Cox. In a holiday message posted Thursday on Twitter, Cox linked to an article in the Sanpete Messenger that reported the death of his cousin from COVID-19.

Reid Cox, who for many years ran a road construction company with three brothers and four cousins, died Dec. 17 after being hospitalized nearly a month. He was 64. His funeral was Wednesday, according to his obituary.

Reid Cox’s wife, Claire, who also caught the virus, told the Messenger that her husband’s death “was all so shocking. He was such a healthy man. He had no pre-existing conditions and was very active. He snowmobiled, hunted, did yardwork, flew airplanes and always passed the physicals for his pilot’s license. He was in better shape than I am, but I recovered fine and he didn’t.”

Cox advised Utahns to avoid large Christmas gatherings, to keep COVID-19 case counts down. “It’s hard, but we know the end of the pandemic is in sight and we want to protect our loved ones,” the governor-elect wrote.

UDOH will be taking Christmas Day off, so the next report of case counts won’t arrive until Saturday.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune and Fox13 are partners in a content-sharing agreement.

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