Summit County joins much of Utah in ‘high’ COVID transmission category as state hospital utilization reaches critical stage
Summit County on Thursday joined 20 other Utah counties in the “high level of transmission” category of the state’s classification system guiding the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a designation based on local health metrics and the capacity for hospitals statewide to handle new patients.
The classification means personal social gatherings in Summit County are capped at 10 people, though larger gatherings can occur in places that have organizational oversight, like businesses and schools.
Officials touted the measures as enabling Utahns to continue living their lives while keeping the economy open amid the pandemic.
The designation will be in place for at least two weeks, according to the Summit County Health Department.
Masks are required in the 21 counties designated as having a high-transmission level, including the state’s two most populous, Salt Lake and Utah counties, along with neighboring Wasatch County.
After months in which state officials resisted a statewide mask mandate, a mask requirement is now in place in 24 of Utah’s 29 counties, though it is set to expire in three of those counties Oct. 29.
The move was announced at a press conference Thursday that was punctuated by stark warnings, reminders and pleas from some of the state’s highest public health officials. The state’s data dashboard indicates 1,503 new cases on Thursday, with 22 new cases and one new hospitalization in Summit County.
“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, before reiterating guidance for people to wear masks, maintain social distance, stay home if sick and wash their hands regularly.
Dr. Edward Stenehjem, a top infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, attempted to convey the effects that the latest surge in COVID-19 patients has had on medical professionals.
“I wish today I was coming to you with good news, really any good news at all,” he said. “Unfortunately, I’m not. Our cases are at an all-time high. Our hospitalizations are at an all-time high.”
In a calm, measured tone, Stenehjem explained what it was like for him to lead the COVID rounds at his hospital. Approximately half of the patients are in the intensive care unit, he said, and they range in age from 19 to 90 years old.
“All of them are suffering. They’re alone and they don’t have the comfort of their family or their friends nearby,” Stenehjem said. “Many won’t make it, unfortunately. And some will make it and be left with chronic medical conditions.”
He said he wished more people could see the conditions inside hospitals and that it might lead people to take the effects of the virus more seriously.
The state’s intensive care unit utilization rate is 73.9%, Dunn said, which means that three of every four intensive care beds are in use, with the state reporting a rolling seven-day average of nearly 1,300 new COVID-19 cases per day.
About 20% of the intensive care unit beds are being used by COVID patients, she added.
Health care providers themselves are nearing their capacity, officials said, and the system is at risk of reaching the point at which it can no longer handle new patients.
Already, procedures like routine cancer screenings or elective surgeries are being postponed or rescheduled, which can mean negative health outcomes for Utahns moving forward, officials said.
“We’ve seen in the past couple weeks that our health care system is at capacity, our health care providers are overwhelmed and exhausted, our public health system is stressed,” Dunn said. “… It’s now flu and cold season, where every year we stress our hospitals during this time. I’m really not trying to scare anyone, I’m just trying to inform you of what’s going on and give you the facts of where we are in this pandemic.”
Officials also discussed efforts to expand hospital capacity, including using temporary hospitals to deal with the surge in cases.
Nearly the entire state has now moved into the high-transmission category, a distinction in a system state officials unveiled last week.
State officials announced they were scrapping the red, orange and yellow risk-level system in favor of a new “transmission index” based on three key pieces of data: the prevalence of the virus in a community measured by positive cases per 100,000 residents; the percentage of tests returning positive results in an area; and the percentage of intensive care beds that are occupied statewide, along with the percentage of those beds that are occupied by people suffering from COVID-19.
The system has distinct trigger points and is governed by publicly accessible data, which may provide more transparency and predictability than the previous system.
One key aspect of the new system, Summit County Councilor Kim Carson said, is that it allows local health departments to issue stricter protocols than state measures — such as mask mandates — as long as the orders do not contradict those from the state. Previously, counties had to seek an exemption from the state health department and Governor’s Office.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert indicated Thursday that one move he might have done differently if given a chance is centralizing power with state officials rather than allowing local health departments more latitude to act.
He also indicated a statewide mask mandate might have not had the intended effect and that he didn’t want to create a “prison state.” He said it would be up to local authorities to enforce the new state-mandated mask orders.
“I think in a conservative state like Utah there’s a lot of people that don’t like government telling them what to do. We’re pretty independent in that regard,” Herbert said in reaction to a question about a statewide mask mandate. “We have people that, in fact, rebel against government telling them what to do.”
Summit County’s mask mandate is in place until Jan. 8, and officials have indicated it will likely remain until a vaccine has been widely administered, expected to be in mid-2021.
On Wednesday, the Summit County Council adopted a new public health order that integrates the state’s new system. It keeps in place the exceptions to the mask mandate adopted by the Board of Health for those exercising in fitness centers and in certain child care settings.
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