Coronavirus in Utah: Positivity rates dropping, but holiday surge likely not over

Health officials reported 2,276 new cases Sunday, two more deaths.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah Health begins administering the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as pharmacy resident Chanah Gallagher gets ready to give Christy Mulder, an RN in the MICU, her second dose on Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021.

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Utah’s COVID-19 cases continue to rise, but fewer people who are being tested have the virus, which could be a positive trend for the state.

Early this week, nearly a third of tests were coming back positive for the virus, according to the state’s rolling seven-day statistics. That high of a number typically indicates many people who have the virus aren’t getting tested. More recently, though, daily percentages have dropped closer to 20%. While that could mean the end of the post-holiday surge, it is also the highest number of new cases reported on a Sunday in five weeks.

In addition, the state’s death count was small Sunday, with two deaths reported.

“What we’re concerned about is late January, early February would be really a time when we could see a lot of hospitalizations and a lot of, unfortunately, more sick patients and therefore more deaths,” said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease physician for Intermountain Health Care. “And they all just kind of go together.”

Vento said the sunnier statistics released in the Utah Department of Health’s reports over the past several days are a ray of false hope. Yes, having 22.6% of tests come back positive, as they did Sunday, is better than Tuesday’s 33.7%. And yes, having two deaths Sunday compared to 18 Wednesday seems like a positive trend.

It’s those mid-week numbers, though, that reveal what’s really going on in the state, much as they have throughout the pandemic. And they aren’t good.

Last week, an average of one in every three people tested had COVID-19. Patients in the ICU hit 195 Tuesday —although that is well below the peak of 224 on Dec. 8, it is on an upward trajectory. Plus, capacity at referral centers — those best equipped to handle coronavirus patients — has climbed past 90%.

What’s really alarming, Vento said, is that the two days the most infections were recorded in Utah occurred within the last two weeks: on Dec. 31 (4,672) and Thursday (4,597). If someone is to end up in the hospital because of the disease, it usually happens within two to five weeks after infection. So, even if just 15% of those people have to be hospitalized, an influx of nearly 1,400 people could soon hit medical centers stemming just from those two days.

“You’re talking about in the next couple of weeks,” he said, “it’s breaking time for the hospital to really expect an increase in use.”

Vento said he fears more high-case days ahead as universities and schools resume classes and people circulate more through the community.

Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday issued an executive order aimed at speeding up the distribution of vaccines. Some frontline health care workers are already receiving their second doses, and initial doses have also gone out to long-term care facilities and emergency responders. Vaccinations of teachers are scheduled to begin this week.

Yet that’s a long-term solution that won’t help turn the tide now, Vento said.

“It’s amazing to have a vaccine with that recorded level of efficacy, but they won’t make a difference for many, many months,” he said. “And they won’t really make a population-level difference until we really get a good chunk of the population of the population vaccinated.”

That’s not likely to really bear fruit until mid-summer, he said. Plus, just piling on, a new, more easily contractible variant of the virus — which has now been found in at least eight states — could mean many more deaths before then.

So yes, this winter will be especially harsh. Yet it can be tempered, Vento said, if more people agree to put up with personal discomfort in the name of greater good. He compared it to the sacrifices made by Americans in the 1940s to help the Allies prevail in World War II.

“You can’t go, ‘I’m tired of this war. I don’t want to do that anymore,’” he said. “Well, guess what? The war against the virus is still going on. It’s killing people. We have almost 400,000 deaths in the United States. And so we all can do our individual part, and it will add up.”

Vaccinations reported in past day/total vaccinations • 3,197 / 102,809.

Cases reported in past day • 2,276.

The two deaths reported Sunday • Both were Washington County residents, a man older than 85 and a woman between 65 and 84.

Hospitalizations reported in past day • 541.

Tests reported in past day • 10,056.

Percentage of positive tests • 22.6%. That’s below the seven-day average of 31.5%.

Totals to date • 305,999 cases; 1,392 deaths; 11,866 hospitalizations; 1,826,385 tests.