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As Utah reports 21 more coronavirus deaths, the high rate of positive tests is a warning not to gather, doctor says

With 25% of tests positive, Utahns should not get together in groups for New Year’s celebrations, one doctor said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 vaccine being prepared for use in Utah on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020.

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With 2,614 new coronavirus cases reported Wednesday, Utah’s rate of new diagnoses held steady, but with 21 new deaths, the virus continued to exact a high toll.

And with 25% of tests coming back positive — a near-record high — it’s likely that the virus is spreading undetected in many communities. At its highest point, in mid-December, the percentage of positive tests reached just over 27%.

“That’s really high. That’s concerning,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Medical Center, said in a news conference Wednesday. “I think it’s really indicating ... that not enough people are getting tested, and we have really significant community transmission.”

That figure in particular should be a warning to Utahns not to gather Thursday and Friday for New Year’s celebrations, Stenehjem said.

“Our percent positivity rate is just so high,” he said. “If we are gathering in large groups, we will be transmitting the virus.”

It won’t be clear until mid-January whether the virus spread significantly during the winter holidays, Stenehjem said. For the past week, the state has averaged 2,033 new positive test results a day, about the same as Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported.

But 23,970 Utahns had received their first vaccine doses as of Wednesday, up 3,553 from Tuesday.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus stood at 1,256 Wednesday, with 21 fatalities reported since Tuesday:

  • A Davis County man age 45 to 64.

  • A Davis County woman older than 85.

  • Two Salt Lake County women, one between 45 and 64 and one older than 85.

  • Seven Salt Lake County men; five between 65 and 84 and two older than 85.

  • Two Sanpete County men, ages 65 to 84.

  • A Uintah County man age 65 to 84.

  • Three Utah County men ages 65 to 84.

  • A Utah County man, older than 85.

  • A Utah County woman older than 85.

  • A Washington County man age 65 to 84.

  • A Weber County man older than 85.

Hospitalizations were down slightly, with 484 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. And statewide, Utah’s intensive care units for the sixth consecutive day remained at less than 85% occupied — the level where doctors have said overcrowding causes the quality of care to deteriorate.

“For the first time in weeks, we now are below that 85% capacity threshold, which is amazing,” Stenehjem said. “It’s given our health care workers a chance to breathe.”

But at the state’s larger, “referral” hospitals, which care for most of Utah’s seriously ill coronavirus patients, ICUs were at 85% occupancy on Wednesday — and hospital administrators have said that figure doesn’t account for staffing fluctuations or high demand for the specialists and equipment needed to treat patients with COVID-19.

Those patients still comprise more than 30% of ICU patients in Utah. Stenehjem has said that, before the coronavirus pandemic, it was virtually unheard of that such a large portion of ICU patients would be receiving care for the same health problem. Even the worst flu seasons typically result in no more than 5% to 10% of ICU patients being there for influenza, he said.

Statewide, ICUs have for five days hovered around 80% of their capacity — still far higher than it was for most of the pandemic.

“We’ve plateaued at a high level of occupancy,” Stenehjem said. “That’s still a huge number of patients in the ICU being treated for COVID 19.”

In total, 10,873 Utahns have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up more than 100 from Tuesday.

The good news, Stenehjem said, is that the flu is barely present in Utah so far this year.

“These public health measures that we’re doing work for influenza,” he said. He noted that the southern hemisphere, which gets each year’s flu virus before the north does, also saw “an incredibly attenuated flu season.”

And, he said, he is hopeful this fall’s public awareness campaign for flu shots — made more urgent by surging coronavirus numbers — prompted more Utahns to get vaccinated.

There were 9,139 new coronavirus test results reported Wednesday, above the weeklong average of about 8,300 new tests per day.

Central and west-central Utah remained the hardest-hit areas of the state, with Millard, Beaver and Sanpete counties reporting 1 in every 48, 49, and 53 residents testing positive for the virus in the past two weeks — which means their cases are considered “active.” And with a sharp rise on Wednesday, Juab County reached a record-high rate of 1 in 53 residents with active infections.

Those rates rise to 1 in 43 residents with active infections within the towns of the Sanpete Valley, and 1 in 44 residents in the Delta-Fillmore area of Millard County. Locally, more than 1 in 70 residents had active infections in six of Utah’s 99 “small areas,” used by state officials to study health trends. Apart from those in Sanpete and Millard counties, they are: Nephi and Mona; Salem City; Eagle Mountain and the Cedar Valley; Saratoga Springs; Lehi; and Herriman.

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