SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert warned that Utah is nearing a "crisis of care" when it comes to COVID-19 and its impact on hospitals.
On Thursday, the state reported 1,837 new cases of COVID-19 and 10 new deaths, bringing the overall death toll to 598 since the beginning of the pandemic. There are 317 people currently hospitalized for COVID-19 and the state's intensive care units are 69% full.
"Our key referral hospitals continue to report high occupancy and a high strain on their health care providers," said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist.
The governor said people needed to change personal behaviors to slow the spread of COVID-19 and avoid overwhelming hospitals.
"We’ve said to the people of Utah, one of the things we must avoid is the overwhelming of our hospital and medical system," Gov. Herbert told reporters at a news conference. "We know the consequences are dire if we, in fact, allow that that to happen. As we see the numbers happen, we’re far too close to allowing that to take place."
The Utah Hospital Association, which represents the state's hospital system, said we are getting closer to a crisis standard where they triage patients and ration care. With every day of high COVID-19 cases, about 5% of them wind up in the hospital.
"The COVID number, if it expands in the next 7-10 days, by the amount of spread proportionately, we could well be up against maxing out our system," said Greg Bell, the association's president.
Beyond bed space, it means that other health care is strained. Nurses and physicians care for more patients, are forced into mandatory overtime and then they start triaging who gets more critical care. Patients who suffer heart attacks, strokes or are in a car accident may have to get sub-par care. Surgeries may be put on hold.
"This impacts patient care. Patients may experience delays in care whether they have COVID or not," said Dr. Mark Shah, an emergency room physician with Intermountain Healthcare.
On Thursday, the state moved Uintah and Duchesne counties to the highest levels of its new transmission index, which sets the risks and restrictions for COVID-19. Now, all but a handful of counties are under a mask mandate and their gatherings are limited to less than 10 people. Iron County was allowed to move to a mask "recommendation" and their gatherings are limited to less than 25.
But casual social gatherings remain the biggest driver of COVID-19 spread in Utah. People are gathering with family and friends unmasked and un-distanced. Pressed on enforcement of it, Gov. Herbert acknowledged they are trying to figure out what to do.
"We’ll be working with our local government officials and the local health departments to see if, in fact, they can step up that enforcement mechanism," the governor said.
Health care leaders pleaded with Utahns to change their behaviors and remember to stay physically distant, limit their gatherings, practice good hygiene and wear face coverings in public.
"We cannot continue to argue about masking. We cannot continue to argue about whether this pandemic is real or made up," said Dr. Shah. "And we cannot continue to argue that health care will do just fine regardless of the demand. That is not true."