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SALT LAKE CITY — Hospitals remain full in Utah largely due to continuing high rates of COVID-19, but one infectious disease physician said Friday the state is poised to have a better winter than last year due to vaccination rates and natural immunity.
Statewide data shows that the state is experiencing at a "high plateau" of cases, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Medical Center, said during a virtual news conference.
"We're not seeing that rapid drop off that we had hoped to see," he said.
On Friday, the Utah Department of Health confirmed 1,619 new COVID-19 cases and 10 new deaths, four of which occurred before October. The rolling, seven-day average for positive tests is now 1,397 per day, and an average of 15.9% of all people tested are resulting in positive cases, which is in the same zone as last week's averages.
Health care leaders, however, hope to see a "continued slow decline" of cases in the next month to six weeks.
One optimistic sign is the number of patients going into clinics and hospitals with COVID-like illnesses are starting to abate, he said, which means cases could start falling within two weeks or so.
"But right now I think we're in a period of stability where our hospitals are completely full, our ICUs are at max capacity, and we're still seeing very significant numbers of cases of COVID throughout our hospitals," according to Stenehjem.
He said that between 80% and 90% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, depending on the day, are unvaccinated. Those who are fully vaccinated on average are 20 years older than the unvaccinated patients, Stenehjem said, and they have medical comorbidities.
In St. George, Dr. Edward Prince, orthopedic surgeon and medical director of surgical services at St. George Regional Hospital, said the situation is so bad that the hospital has needed to stop taking some transfers and cancel some elective but important surgeries.
The hospital is at nearly 100% of its capacity on any given day, Prince said, and surgery delays led one patient who needed a heart bypass surgery to die before they could receive it.
The capacity issue in St. George continues to be due to nursing shortages rather than room, Prince said.
Despite the current strain on hospitals, there's reason for optimism, according to Stenehjem. He emphasized that the state is in a different situation going into the winter this year than last year. Now, we have vaccinations widely available "and a very, very effective vaccine."
Well over 60% of those eligible have been fully vaccinated, and many others have been infected with COVID-19 "and have some level of protection, as well," Stenehjem said.
He said this winter, the state has a population that's overall less susceptible to the disease compared to last year.
Latest Utah data
School-age children accounted for 329 of Friday's cases — 177 cases were ages 5-10, 78 cases were 11-13, and 74 cases were 14-17, according to the Utah Department of Health.
Health care workers across the state administered 13,417 more vaccine doses, including booster shots, since the previous day's report. That brings total doses given in Utah to 3,656,641.
In the last 28 days, unvaccinated residents have faced 14.6 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 10.8 times greater risk of hospitalization, and 5.5 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people, health officials said.
Since Feb.1, people who are unvaccinated are at 8.7 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 7.5 times greater risk of being hospitalized due to the disease, and 3.8 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people, the state data shows.
Of the cases reported Friday, 408 were considered "breakthrough," meaning they were among patients who had been fully vaccinated more than two weeks before testing positive. The state also confirmed 12 more breakthrough hospitalizations and four breakthrough deaths.
State health officials and doctors have noted receiving the vaccine does not mean someone will not contract the coronavirus, but in most cases, it is protective against serious illness. The vaccine also does not cause a person to get COVID-19.
Since vaccines became available to the public early this year, the state has confirmed 25,459 breakthrough cases of the 538,895 total positive cases since the pandemic began, or just under 5% of all cases. Utah health officials have also confirmed 1,256 breakthrough hospitalizations and 175 breakthrough deaths.
The latest deaths include:
- A Box Elder County woman, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
- A Box Elder County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Carbon County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Davis County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- An Iron County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
- Two Salt Lake County women, older than 85, long-term care facility residents.
- A Utah County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
- A Utah County man, 65-84, hospitalized.