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'We find ourselves at the breaking point:' Cox shares grim COVID outlook in Utah

Posted at 8:47 AM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 19:19:43-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox said Utah has hit a "breaking point" when it comes to COVID-19, with rising cases and fewer hospital beds to treat people.

"We’re sad that we’re here. We’re disappointed that we’re here. We wish we were not here. We don’t have to be here. But we are here," he told reporters at a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

The governor planned to meet with members of the Utah State Legislature to see if there was anything that can be done to address the surge in cases and hospitalizations. He floated the idea of masks in schools if outbreaks hit a certain threshold.

This year, the legislature severely restricted the ability for the governor to impose mask mandates or other COVID-19 restrictions.

For the first time since the pandemic began, the governor said Utah had an instance where there was no available intensive care unit beds. It particularly has impacted rural hospitals and their ability to transport critical patients.

Dr. Marc Harrison, the CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, said their referral hospitals (those best equipped to treat COVID-19 patients) were at 103% capacity. All of their hospital ICUs were now at 100% capacity and elective medical treatments were being canceled.

Health care workers were burning out and quitting after 18 months of battling COVID-19. More than 90% of their COVID patients, Dr. Harrison said, were unvaccinated.

"Some people just can’t take it anymore. It has been unrelenting the stresses these folks have faced and they’re particularly disheartened by the amount of unnecessary death and destruction they are seeing," he told reporters.

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The bad news continued, as Dr. Michelle Hofmann, the deputy director of Utah's Department of Health, shared a forecast for COVID-19 cases for children ages 5-17.

"We expect a possibility of up to 39,000 cases in the month of September alone," she said.

Her voice choking with emotion, Dr. Hofmann said roughly a third of nursing homes in Utah are dealing with outbreaks — some with 100% of the staff and residents fully vaccinated as the delta variant continues to spread.

She pleaded with people to wear masks and get vaccinated.

At Primary Children's Medical Center, things were not much better. The hospital's administration said they are seeing increasing numbers of children with COVID-19 and few beds to treat them.

"We’re also seeing the number of ... RSV steadily increasing," said Chris Miller with Primary Children's Medical Center.

Dr. Harrison also called for people to start wearing masks. He disclosed his own blood cancer diagnosis and that he is immunocompromised.

"I hope that all of you who aren’t wearing masks aren’t carrying the delta variant, because if you are, you could kill me," he said, calling out unmasked people in the room. "This is serious stuff."

Among those who were unmasked in the room where Gov. Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson. After Dr. Harrison spoke, Gov. Cox said he would start to wear a mask more, especially around unvaccinated and immunocompromised people.

But Utah will not likely return to any kind of mask mandate.

"It’s very clear there’s little appetite for any kind of statewide mandates and it’s frustrating for us," Lt. Gov. Henderson told reporters.

The governor himself encouraged people to wear masks, said they will not singlehandedly solve the crisis.

"The anti-maskers and the extreme maskers, we just all need to get ourselves a little bit and try to have a little bit of common sense here," Gov. Cox said. "Unfortunately, that’s what’s missing from all this discussion is a little of common sense, a little bit of nuance, a little bit of grace and a little bit of understanding and that’s what we’re going to try to bring to the legislature."

FOX 13 is told the governor will meet with House and Senate Republicans and Democrats on Wednesday and Thursday to outline the situation and solicit ideas. The legislature passed a law that lifted COVID-19 restrictions as the state hit certain thresholds dubbed the "endgame bill."

The House Republican caucus declined to comment until after the governor's meeting with them.

"As legislators, it’s our job to make decisions based on data and to listen to public input. I believe the legislative and executive branches have the same goals in mind – to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools and across the state without infringing on individuals’ freedoms," Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said in a statement.

"Having discussions with the governor, other legislators, health officials and the public is all part of the legislative process. The more discussions we have, the more ideas are brought forward, leading us to make better decisions. We will continue to closely monitor the data and work with healthcare providers, local health departments and local officials to respond to COVID-19."

Asked about the bills that he signed into law, Gov. Cox said circumstances were different when those were passed earlier this year.

"We were assured if things changed, they would be willing to reconsider and make decisions based on those changes," he said. "Things have changed."