Post-Thanksgiving COVID surge appears to be impacting older population, health director says
The first signs of a post-Thanksgiving surge of COVID-19 cases started to appear six days after the holiday, Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said, a grim development that officials hope is not indicative of a winterlong trend.
“We are where we expected to be,” Bullough said in an interview Tuesday morning. “Went into Thanksgiving with numbers higher than we wanted to be, and we’re seeing the surge we expected.”
He told the Board of Health on Monday that the case rate is rising quickly among older populations. He said that it appeared that intergenerational gatherings contributed to that trend, though his teams hadn’t had time to analyze the data.
“That does not bode well for hospitalization rates,” Bullough told the board.
Older people often have the worst outcomes from COVID-19, with higher rates of hospitalization and death.
A surge in cases translate into increased hospitalizations after about a week or 10 days, officials have said, and the number of regular and intensive care unit hospital beds is dangerously low statewide.
As of Sunday, 91% of intensive care unit beds were occupied at the state’s 16 “COVID referral hospitals,” where the most serious cases are sent, according to state data.
An explanation accompanying the state data shows that intensive care unit utilization above 77% at those hospitals creates “major strains” on the health care system, and when 85% is reached, the state is “functionally out of staffed ICU beds” and the hospital system is “overwhelmed.”
The state has been at or above that mark since Nov. 10, except for two days when it dipped to 83% and 84%.
Bullough said in his monthly COVID update to the Summit County Board of Health that 18% of people being tested in the county for COVID have the disease. That’s not as high as in neighboring counties or the state as a whole, but is significantly higher than it was just a week ago, Bullough said.
Board Chair Ilyssa Golding indicated she might support more restrictive measures in Summit County, an opinion she has voiced in the last two board meetings. She expressed frustration with skyrocketing case numbers and relatively little action that is open to public officials.
“What makes us think anything is going to change if we just keep doing exactly what we’re doing?” Golding asked. “… Should we be thinking about if there is anything else we can do? I just feel kind of helpless.”
Bullough said the state has recently taken stronger positions on public health policies, enacting a statewide mask mandate and a temporary limit on gathering sizes. But he said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to seek stronger measures like closing businesses or mandating that people stay home.
After state legislative action this year, the county would need to apply for permission to implement COVID protocols stricter than those imposed at the state level.
The COVID situation in Summit County is better than that in neighboring Wasatch, Utah or Salt Lake counties, Bullough said, though it remains far from ideal. Shuttering the county’s economy likely wouldn’t have a lasting health benefit, as many workers live outside county borders, he added.
Bullough indicated that more restrictive measures would likely only have meaningful impact if enacted regionally or statewide.
One of the reasons Bullough believes Summit County is in better shape than its neighbors is that it’s become normal for residents to wear masks. The county has advised wearing face coverings since May and mandated it in June. The statewide mask mandate has been in place since November.
In a rare public critique of state efforts, Bullough indicated at a community forum Monday night that he believed fewer Utahns would have been infected with COVID-19 if the state had acted earlier to mandate masks.
“We had a state that was very hesitant to take action, and it wasn’t until cases surged enormously that steps were taken,” Bullough said. “I think a lot of the current surge that we’re having, at least the magnitude of the surge, could have to some extent been avoided had we started the conversation of mask-wearing much, much earlier, and Summit County is a good example of that. It’s not … out of the norm for us to put a face covering on because we’ve been doing it, we’re used to it. And that gives us a head start.”
Bullough said in an interview that wearing a mask is like any behavior change — difficult at first but increasingly easy until it becomes a habit. He said surveys have shown upwards of 90% of people in Summit County wear face coverings.
As for the upcoming winter holidays, Bullough acknowledged that many families are grappling with a tough decision.
“It’s such a hard question. The holidays are — they’re family, the time we hold most dear. It’s a pretty hard thing to modify that,” he said. He added that he has taken steps within his own family like maintaining social distance during Thanksgiving and having blunt conversations about Christmas.
“You don’t want to be the one, I do not want to be the one that makes my parents or your grandparents sick and perhaps kills them. It’s that real. Somehow we need to make this about protecting especially the elderly in our families,” he said.
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