SALT LAKE CITY — As a surge in delta variant-related COVID-19 cases continues its grip on Utah, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem said morale among caregivers at Intermountain Healthcare hospitals is as low as he's ever seen.
Intermountain hospital intensive care units are at 102% capacity as of Friday, with medical professionals scrambling to find space for people who need to be treated, said Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician. Patients who are being treated in general medical or surgical units in hospitals are too sick to be there and really should be in intensive care, but there's no space, he said.
The emotional toll has been "incredibly taxing" for ICU doctors and nurses, especially because they're seeing so many hospitalizations from unvaccinated people who didn't have to be there, Stenehjem said.
He added that he's personally feeling numbed to the current situation.
"We're in pretty dire straits right now," Stenehjem said during an Intermountain news conference Friday. "I'm worried. I'm worried about our caregivers, I'm worried about their mental well-being. ... It's a pretty trying time in the hospital."
The Utah Department of Health reported 897 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, along with four deaths and 354 patients now hospitalized with the disease. There were 8,342 more vaccinations administered as of Friday.
Utah's rolling seven-day average for the daily number of positive cases in the state is at 844. The positive test rate per day for that time period calculated with the "people over people" method is 13.4%. The positive test rate per day for that time period calculated with the "test over test" method is 9.6%.
Hospital officials are looking for ways to preserve space for COVID-19 patients who need it, Stenehjem said. That means elective surgeries could be postponed once again. It's concerning because even though they're referred to as "elective," people still need those procedures, he added.
Intermountain hospitals have also reverted back to restricting visitation again, allowing two people at a time per 24-hour period, Stenehjem said.
"We're in a really tough spot, and everything is back on the table again," he said.
Additionally, it will be a very difficult year for diagnosing illnesses, Stenehjem said. Last year, if someone came to a hospital with respiratory symptoms, doctors could assume with high confidence that the patient had COVID-19 because there were almost no cases of similar respiratory infections, such as influenza and RSV.
But now, Utah is experiencing a spike in RSV cases much earlier than normal, and the normal flu season hasn't even begun yet. It's important to get people diagnosed as early as possible in the course of their disease because treatments for those diseases, such as monoclonal antibody therapies, are more effective if they're applied early, Stenehjem said.
That will take more work from hospital diagnosticians, he said. He also encouraged people to get tested as soon as they experience any respiratory symptoms, and to inform their doctors of any diagnosis as soon as possible so those treatments can be administered.
"We have tools that prevent this type of thing," Stenehjem said.
The best way for people to make sure that there's space in hospitals for patients who need it is to get vaccinated, Stenehjem added, adding that the overwhelming majority of people being hospitalized at Intermountain facilities have not been vaccinated.
Utah's vaccination numbers aren't good enough, Stenehjem said.
"Unless we can get our community fully vaccinated, we're going to be dealing with this for the indefinite future," he said. "That is the one thing everybody can do to lessen the load on our hospitals."
A total of 3,116,280 vaccine doses have now been administered in Utah, according to the health department. A total of 1,732,486 Utahns — which is about 54% of the state's total population — have now received at least a first dose of the vaccine. A total of 1,516,563 Utahns — which is about 47.3% of the total population — are fully vaccinated.
Among vaccine-eligible Utahns age 12 and older, 66.8% have received a first dose and 58.5% are fully vaccinated.
Stenehjem said he hopes that people in Utah will realize that wearing masks is the next best thing people can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19, aside from getting vaccinated.
Even though the Salt Lake County Council vetoed a health department mandate that would have required masks in all K-6 schools this fall, educators and students may still need to go back to practicing those preventative measures, like masking and social distancing, to prevent the spread of the disease in classrooms, Stenehjem added.
People have underestimated how well children do with wearing masks, he said, explaining that there isn't any adverse biological effect when kids wear them.
"Children are very good at this," he said.
He predicted that there may be additional COVID-19 spikes as kids return to classrooms and spread the disease among themselves, before bringing it home and spreading it among their unvaccinated family members.
"We really need to get this under control before we're in that winter season," he said. "We can't sustain the stress on our health care environment that long."
Four more deaths
The four new deaths reported Friday were:
- A Salt Lake County woman between the ages of 45 and 64, who was hospitalized when she died.
- A Utah County man between 45 and 64, who was hospitalized.
- A Utah County woman between 25 and 44, who was hospitalized.
- A Weber County woman between 45 and 64, who was hospitalized.
Of the 354 COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized in Utah as of Friday afternoon, 136 are in ICUs. About 82% of Utah's ICU beds are occupied, including about 86% of ICU beds in the state's 16 referral hospitals.
Of the 3,002,720 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 14.8% have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of total tests conducted in Utah since the pandemic began is now at 5,456,241, up 11,404 since Thursday. Of those, 6,670 were tests of people who had not previously been tested for COVID-19.
Friday's totals give Utah 444,385 total confirmed cases during the pandemic, with 19,255 total hospitalizations and 2,525 total deaths from the disease since its local outbreak began in March 2020.
More information about Utah's health guidance levels is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-health-guidance-levels.
Information is from the Utah Department of Health and coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts. For more information on how the Utah Department of Health compiles and reports COVID-19 data, visit coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts and scroll down to the "Data Notes" section at the bottom of the page.