Also, the common winter respiratory illnesses, which decreased last year due to public health measures such as masking, are back.
With hospitals already at or near capacity and the high number of coronavirus cases, Utah is “not in a good place to head into the winter months,” according to an infectious disease specialist.
“We’re starting in a place that doesn’t give us much confidence,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, Friday.
On Friday, the intensive care units of Utah’s larger, “referral” hospitals were 98% full — a level not reached until mid-December last year, as hospitals approached their worst patient load from the pandemic.
An ICU is considered “at capacity” when 85% of the beds are full.
This week, Utah hospitals treated about 540 to 590 COVID-19 patients each day — about 100 more than on the same dates last year, according to the Utah Department of Health.
And that’s just for COVID-19.
Last year, the precautions taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus also helped quell outbreaks of other typical winter respiratory diseases.
Now those diseases are back, Webb said.
“Especially in the younger populations, we see a very early respiratory viral season,” he said.
At Primary Children’s Hospital, for example, doctors treated cases of the respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, months before outbreaks usually occur. Now, overloaded with patients, the hospital is postponing operations for children.
With so many more non-COVID patients in need of care in addition to those being treated for the coronavirus, Intermountain hospitals have been removed from designated COVID-19 departments, Webb said, and now all ICU patients are treated together.
“Those units currently have or have exceeded capacity,” Webb said at a news conference Friday. “In most Intermountain hospitals, we have opened extra ICU beds and are struggling to staff them.”
So far, Utah has managed to escape the worst of the fall of Mountain West coronavirus cases. Hospitals in Idaho, for example, were rationing care statewide as COVID-19 outbreaks overwhelmed health care providers.
But the virus can make unpredictable shifts. Webb pointed to Colorado, where epidemiologists have been startled by a precipitous rise in cases since mid-October. The infection rates there are higher than those in Utah, although the vaccination rate in Colorado is relatively high.
If Utah sees a similar spike, as the weather gets colder and residents do away with the precautions they could have taken a year ago, the state could be in the same situation Idaho had a few weeks ago.
“We’re going into winter without any wiggle room,” Webb said. “There is no room for error.”
That means Utahns must continue to take precautions, such as masking and social distancing, even as immunity levels rise, either from vaccination or infection. The emergence of the ultra-infectious delta variant this summer has shown the limits of immunity, even though vaccinations are still crucial, Webb said.
“We’ve shifted the paradigm, perhaps prematurely, to talk about the pandemic being over. To come back to those other additional preventive measures. And then Delta hit, and we quickly recognized that while the vaccines are still very effective, they’re declining,” Webb said. “…And so I think there’s been widespread disappointment because as a community we’ve had to shift from this early spring where we thought, ‘We’re done.’”
About 68% of Utah residents ages 12 and older are fully vaccinated, UDOH reported Friday. Children ages 5 to 11 weren’t eligible for the vaccine long enough to be fully vaccinated, but about 7% have received one dose since federal regulators approved Pfizer’s vaccine for that age group about a week ago.