MILLCREEK, Utah — As COVID-19 cases surge again in the state, Governor Spencer Cox reiterated his belief it is a "pandemic of the unvaccinated."
"The delta variant is highly contagious and it’s spreading rapidly. As a result our ICUs are filling up and our health care workers are feeling the strain," the governor said at a news conference at St. Mark's Hospital on Tuesday.
Utah's hospitals are finding their intensive care units overwhelmed and turning away some patients. On Tuesday, Intermountain Healthcare said its intensive care units were over capacity.
"The latter part of July, the delta variant started to take hold and we went from 10% of our ICU capacity to now, as of Sunday, 30% of ICUs are full of COVID patients," said Greg Bell, the CEO of the Utah Hospital Association.
That is in addition to the heart attacks, strokes, accidents and other things intensive care units find themselves treating. The difference is there is no new overflow beds. There isn't even staffing to handle it. Some health care workers, burned out and frustrated, have quit.
"We can’t handle it," Bell said.
Dr. Michelle Hofmann, the deputy director of Utah's Department of Health, said Tuesday that it remains unknown if we are near a peak in COVID-19 cases, or if this is the beginning of another surge.
"Breakthrough cases represent a very small percentage of our cases in Utah, and most breakthrough infections are mild," Dr. Hofmann said of people who still get the virus after being vaccinated. "Virtually all hospitalizations and death continue among the unvaccinated."
The difference between last year's surge and now is the vaccine. But Gov. Cox, sounding frustrated at Tuesday's news conference, said some people can't be persuaded to help others and many Utahns are finding themselves having to "take one for the team once again to protect those who are unvaccinated."
"I’m guessing the Venn diagram of people who are unvaccinated and willing to wear a mask is very, very slim," the governor quipped. "If at all."
The governor said he had no plans to implement any new COVID restrictions (the legislature restricted the ability to implement them). He told reporters that legislative leaders were engaged in talks, but they preferred to leave it to local governments.
Local health departments, under the laws passed by the legislature this year, can request measures like a mask mandate. However, that can be overridden by a county council or commission.
"We don’t believe any additional restrictions will one, can be implemented and two, make a significant difference," Gov. Cox said.
While government will not mandate the vaccine, the Cox administration said it would fully support any company that chose to require it for their employees. Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson announced that stance at Tuesday's news conference, and reiterated it in a brief interview with FOX 13.
"We support them. That’s part of the free market," she said. "Those who are complaining about it? Are the very people I think that love the free market and think businesses should be able to what they want and make their own decisions. We just want to reiterate we agree. Businesses should be able to make those decisions."
Asked about businesses that require proof of vaccination from customers, Lt. Gov. Henderson replied: "That’s also their right."
The governor warned in his news conference that Utahns shouldn't be surprised if private businesses also started to institute mask requirements in their stores again.
There were signs that some Utahns are starting to heed the pleas to get vaccinated. Last week, the Utah Dept. of Health reported 27,000 people got their first dose.
"This now has become one of the most critical decisions people will ever make," Bell said. "If they decide not to be vaccinated. They are likely putting themselves and those they care for and live with at serious risk. And they will not know if they’re in irreversible trouble until it’s too late."
With back-to-school on the horizon, health care workers are bracing for another spike if people don't get vaccinated. The governor's office announced that it would supply KN95 masks to every single Utah child as they head back to school.
The Utah Department of Health on Monday released its back-to-school guidance, which relies on vaccination for children above age 12, masks recommended (but they can't be required) and increased COVID-19 testing. Students who are vaccinated do not have to quarantine and miss class, games or other extracurricular activities.
Watch the governor's news conference here: