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ST. GEORGE — Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital remained over capacity on Wednesday largely due to COVID-19 patients, prompting a warning from officials ahead of the holidays.
"Take the steps necessary to protect yourselves. Take the steps necessary to protect your loved ones," said Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director at the hospital.
On Wednesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 1,406 new COVID-19 cases and 11 new deaths. The rolling, seven-day average for new cases is 981 per day, and the average positive rate is 11.6%.
Carroll expressed gratitude to the community for supporting the hospitals and health care, and to nurses, physicians and others who play a critical role in health care delivery.
"We continue to see high volumes ... and we have been very full this week," Carroll said of the St. George hospital.
On Wednesday, overall hospital use at St. George Regional Hospital stood at 106% of capacity, meaning there are more patients than licensed beds, the medical director said. The intensive care unit, meanwhile, was at 125% capacity.
A stable number of patients remain in the hospital with COVID-19, Carroll said, and about half of the patients in the St. George ICU are there due to the coronavirus.
"We've never in the history of our hospital seen the number of patients with a single diagnosis," Carroll added.
The hospital continues to care for everyone who walks through its doors, but patients sometimes need to be transferred, he said.
The decline in case rates throughout the state over the past several days is positive, Carroll said, but it's unclear how much of that decline is a true decrease in cases and how much is due to the increased availability of at-home tests.
"So there's likely some additional cases that are at-home testing," Carroll said, as those tests don't get processed by health care systems.
Although the Utah Department of Health website lists just seven confirmed omicron cases, "it's very likely that we have far more cases of omicron in the state based on what we know about this variant right now. We estimate at least 30% of cases in Utah may now be omicron, as of Monday," officials with the department said in a statement Wednesday.
In order to confirm the omicron variant, the state health department does confirmatory testing on cases, Carroll noted. But the PCR tests administered by Intermountain Healthcare look at segments of genetic material to identify whether the virus is present or not. One of the three genes in omicron has mutated in a way that makes it not show up in the test, he said, indicating it might be the omicron variant.
"We continue to see an increase in the prevalence of omicron in all those who are being tested, and it looks like it could be the predominant variant based on what we're seeing probably by Christmas, if not then, shortly after that," Carroll said.
The Utah Department of Health confirmed there are likely high rates of omicron cases.
"The cases reported on our public dashboard only reflect the number of confirmed samples which have completed all steps in the whole-genome sequencing process. There is often a lag between sample collection and genomic sequencing. While there are some other variants with this same characteristic, it's more likely that we are seeing a rapid rise in omicron cases," according to the statement.
Officials say that due to a mechanical issue, the state lab was only able to perform a limited amount of sequencing last week. The problem has since been fixed "and we expect to have sequencing results to report this coming Monday," health officials said.
"We are still learning about omicron. It's likely we will see more breakthrough cases with omicron. However, what we know right now, is vaccination and booster shots still offer the best protection against severe illness from COVID-19. The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the UDOH strongly recommend adults 16 and older get booster doses when they are eligible (six months after receiving their Pfizer or Moderna shots, or two months after receiving their Johnson & Johnson shot)," the health department said.
Reports out of South Africa say it might cause less severe disease, but in the U.K. reports say it might cause the same hospitalization rate as the delta variant, the medical director noted.
Hospitals are also grappling with other seasonal viruses including RSV and influenza, which are much worse this winter compared to last.
Carroll urged those who are feeling ill to sit holiday gatherings out, especially if higher-risk people will be attending. If you have symptoms, wear a mask as an "absolute minimum" protective measure.
New Utah data
School-age children account for 167 of Wednesday's new cases — 72 cases were ages 5-10, 44 cases were 11-13, and 51 were 14-17, health officials said.
Of the new cases, 518 were "breakthrough," meaning among people who had been fully vaccinated with at least two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, more than two weeks earlier. One additional breakthrough death was also reported. Now 57,051 breakthrough cases and 343 breakthrough deaths have been confirmed in Utah since vaccines first became available.
Referral ICUs, which can treat the most serious patients, were 98% full on Wednesday, according to the Utah Department of Health. Overall ICU use was 94.4% and non-ICUs were 59.8% full. Across the state, 457 patients were being treated in hospitals for COVID-19.
Two of the deaths reported Wednesday occurred before December. The latest deaths include:
- An Iron County man, between the ages of 65 and 84, was hospitalized when he died.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 25-44, hospitalized.
- Two Salt Lake County women, 65-84, both hospitalized.
- A Utah County woman, 18-24; it's unknown if she was hospitalized when she died.
- A Utah County woman, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, 45-64, unknown if hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
- Two Washington County women, 65-84, both hospitalized