ST. GEORGE — Utah Sen. Don Ipson can't think of anyone he knew that had been infected by COVID-19 during the summertime.
That changed in the months between then and now. Ipson, R-St. George, said he now knows several people who have contracted it, been hospitalized, and even a few who have died from complications caused by it. Then, just weeks ago, he toured Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, with some of his legislator colleagues and witnessed firsthand the issues the hospital staff has to deal with to match the needs of COVID-19 patients.
The tour was eye-opening, he said. Reflecting on it Tuesday, he called it "humbling" and "scary." For him, it hit close to home because two of his granddaughters work in health care just like the staff he watched hard at work.
"That was pretty sobering for me," Ipson said, recalling the tour. "To see the intensive unit expanded into the other areas, the other wings of the hospital, and the statistics that they're using those beds today — what an incredible job the hospital has done to get us through this."
Ipson was one of a handful of southern Utah legislators that gathered online for a virtual meeting with Dixie Regional Medical Center leaders, Intermountain Healthcare professionals and members of the media to discuss that tour and thank hospital staff for what they do on a daily basis.
During the nearly hour-long meeting, those legislators — Ipson; Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City; Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George; Rep. Brad Last, R-Hurricane; Rep. Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City; and Rep. Lowry Snow, R-Santa Clara, spoke about their appreciation for front-line workers following the tour of the hospital and urged people to be careful heading into the Christmas holiday.
"We need to be cautious as we head into Christmas Day that we — you know, 30% of the places where this COVID is transmitted to other people is in our homes," Ipson said. "We need to be protective of our health in our homes."
COVID-19 situation ahead of Christmas
Their message came as the number of new COVID-19 cases continues to slowly fall statewide, but hospitalizations and test positivity rates remain too high for comfort.
COVID-19 cases statewide haven't spiked quite like what public health experts feared would happen after Thanksgiving, based on trends of previous holidays this year. Experts from the Utah Department of Health and Intermountain Healthcare have attributed that welcomed lack of spike to people following recommendations and limiting holiday gatherings.
It's the same conclusion Dixie Regional medical director Dr. Patrick Carroll took from the data in southern Utah.
"We're pleased to see that surge that we expected didn't occur in the way we thought it would," he said. "That tells me that we have a significant percentage of our population in southern Utah that did follow the recommendation of our government officials, our health care professionals, and of our local mayors."
That doesn't mean Utah is out of the woods yet, which is why similar recommendations regarding holiday gatherings are in place ahead of Christmas.
The state's seven-day running average of COVID-19 cases is once again falling as we head into Christmas. It fell from 3,125 cases per day on Dec. 6 to 2,478 cases per day as of Tuesday. That said, the state's positivity rate remains high after going through a roller coaster of trends. It peaked at 27.2% on Dec. 1 and fell to 22.2% by Dec. 13, and then crept back to 23.7% through Dec. 16.
The other issue is that statewide hospitalizations, which do show signs of deceleration, remain high. As of Tuesday, 544 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19, which includes 202 ICU cases. The utilization of ICUs at referral centers and all hospitals statewide is still above the threshold of 85% that health care providers state officials have decided upon, and that has been the case throughout December.
Those numbers aren't indicative of every hospital. Carroll said there were 67 COVID-19 patients at Dixie Regional Medical Center on Tuesday, which is another record set for the hospital since the pandemic began. The hospital also has 37 ICU patients, which has forced the hospital to use surge beds since its ICU maxes out at 32 beds.
"We're continuing to find ways to provide each patient in this care in the hospital, but also need to recognize that this is contingency care," he said. "We're not providing the normal care for ICU patients in the normal place that we would like to provide the care."
The hospital dealt with a seven-day running average above 2.5 deaths per day from COVID-19 last week, Carroll added.
The Southwest Utah Public Health Department, which is where the hospital is located, has reported 130 deaths since the pandemic began — the third-highest among the 13 local health departments. Only Salt Lake County (515) and Utah County (198) have more. Those deaths have been difficult on doctors and nurses, Carroll explained.
"When they have a patient come in that despite their best efforts, despite trying everything they can, that they see a patient that had years of life left succumb to this illness, that's more difficult than the high census; that's more difficult than a lot of patients coming in," he said. "We want to prevent the devastating effects; we want to prevent death. … Collectively as a society, we do it much better by preventing illness than when the patients end up in the hospital."
After dealing with skepticism from COVID-19 deniers online, the hospital provided representatives a tour of its facility. Hospital officials also posted a virtual tour of the facility on social media on Dec. 8, which was aimed to show everyone the work they were doing and the situation inside the hospital.
Many of the representatives who toured the hospital agreed with Ipson and also called it "sobering." They thanked the health care workers for their ongoing efforts.
"When you actually see it and you talk to the medical providers — those that are working there — and you find out to what length we've had to take in our community to provide for those who are ill and suffering from this, it is sobering," Snow said. "And also, when you count the numbers of people we've lost in our state and in southern Utah. Some of those represent people that we know. It's real; the pandemic has taken people's lives, and we need to continue to be vigilant."
While the representatives didn't necessarily all agree on issues like ordering mask mandates, they urged people to follow guidelines like wearing masks.
Snow, Vickers and Shipp said they have noticed a "change in the climate and attitude" within the region as its largest hospital began to get overcrowded. Many residents started wearing masks, physically distancing and canceling holiday gathering plans — as difficult as that might be.
"I know through social media there's those naysayers out there saying, 'This is an infringement on our freedom. This isn't that critical,' I'm glad most of the people are not listening to those things," Shipp said.
Vickers also took issue with some of the conspiracy theories floating around about masks and hospitalizations he's come across, which he pointed out can easily be debunked.
"It's been frustrating, in a lot of ways, to see the various theories with social media and other things," he said.
Carroll said if people continue to follow public health guidelines and limit gatherings for the holiday, he's confident that it will help lower COVID-19 transmission, which will result in fewer hospitalizations and deaths tied to the coronavirus. That would be big boost for a hospital staff that is "exhausted" even though additional staff has been brought in to help with the surge in new cases.
Of course, Tuesday's online meeting came a week after hospitals began vaccinating front-line workers. Dr. Kristin Dascomb, Intermountain Healthcare medical director of infection prevention for employee health, said that nearly 5,000 Intermountain employees have already received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
State health department data shows 326 people were administered the vaccine within the Southwest Utah Public Health Department district.
While he urges people to follow guidelines to trim the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the region, Ipson also said he hoped that people will get vaccinated once the vaccines are available to the public.
He said he's old enough to remember polio and measles concerns, which were eliminated with the development of vaccines. It's why he plans to get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is made available to him.
"It's just another step in trying to make the world healthier (and) to curb the pandemic," he said. "I have a hard time understanding, in my own mind, why people wouldn't want to be vaccinated. The science is there. They've tested it; it works. … I would just encourage everyone to really give it a lot of thought."