January 17, 2022

‘We’ve shifted into a true crisis phase’: Omicron surge sets COVID record in Southern Utah – St George News

Photo illustration. | Photo by lusia599, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Southern Utah record for the number of new COVID-19 infections in a day was shattered Thursday, as the parent company of St. George Regional and Cedar City hospitals said it was moving into a “full crisis mode” in a surge of the omicron variant.

A line of about 50 cars wrapped in a circle at the TestUtah free COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Tech Ridge, St. George, Utah, Dec. 30, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

The Utah Department of Health reported 517 new COVID-19 infections in Southern Utah on Thursday, which breaks the previous pandemic record of 363 set on Dec. 20, 2020.

The omicron variant is also setting new pandemic precedents for the state as a whole and nationwide. Utah, which had been averaging about 1,000 new infections per day, had a record 8,913 on Thursday and 7,247 Wednesday.

“We’re beginning the year in a real dire situation,” Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, said as part of a Thursday Zoom briefing with reporters.

And because of the increased prevalence of at-home COVID-19 tests, which aren’t counted in the totals released by the state and the Centers for Disease Control, Hofmann said the official count of new infections is a bigger undercount of the actual number of infections than it ever has been.

Beyond new infections, local and state hospitals have also been reporting a surge in COVID-19 patients since the start of the new year. While the Southwest Utah Public Health Department has not updated the number of locals hospitalized since Dec. 30, the Utah Department of Health says there have been 35 local residents admitted to local hospitals for COVID-19 since Monday. 

Graphic showing 10 days with the most coronavirus cases in Southern Utah through Jan. 6, 2022. | Background photo by by
mbz-photodesign, iStock/Getty Images Plus; Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Hospitals are once again at or above capacity. The situation is bad enough in the northern part of the state that hospitals there have started turning away ambulances.

Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, said omicron has created a new problem for the hospitals: only one – and the rarest – of the three monoclonal antibodies is able to work on the omicron variant, and only a small supply of the new COVID-19 treatment pill is available. Webb said St. George Regional Hospital and other hospitals will not be able to fully treat all COVID-19 patients.  

“We’ve shifted into a true crisis phase,” Webb said. “The amount of available treatment is very limited. Only 1 out of every 100 people who test positive will have availability of treatment.”

The rate of infections in Southern Utah is up around 131% in the last week. The number of locals infected with the virus has gone from 1,757 before the New Year’s weekend to 3,050 now. 

Earlier this week, Southern Utah saw its 500th person die of COVID-19, and since then that number has risen to 506. 

Because so many are infected, another effect of omicron surge is being seen across St. George and other areas of Southern Utah: Closed signs.

While there are no mandatory lockdowns like the start of the pandemic in 2020, businesses with too many staff staying home after positive tests have been forced to close their doors. Around town, some fast food drive-thrus were blocked by cones because the restaurant was unable to open. 

“The difference is the severe transmissibility of the virus. Omicron is going to infect many, many people,” Hoffman said. “We’re going to see places with a staffing crisis. You may not go to the hospital but you can’t go to work.”

Schools back in session

With local schools entering their first days with students back from winter break, there is the potential for a new large source of infections with a variant as contagious as measles and many children under 12 still unimmunized.

Sign outside Panguitch High School in Panguitch, Utah. Aug. 11, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

While the state strongly recommends that students and staff at schools wear masks right now, this depends on enforcement. In response to a question from St. George News about the lack of preventative measures in schools, the state epidemiologist said it is not a matter of “if” there will be an omicron outbreak in schools. 

“We will see omicron spread in our schools. There’s no question,” Dr. Leisha Nolen, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said. “Omicron spreads so easily.” 

Hoffman said just within a couple of school hours into the second half of the school year, there are already signs that some schools may have to move into a “test-to-stay” status where any student or staff must have a negative COVID-19 test in order to come to school.

“Beginning out the gate, we’re already seeing schools approaching test-to-stay thresholds, which is already too late to slow the spread,” Hoffman said.

In the last week, according to the Utah Department of Health, the infection rate has been shifting to a younger demographic. There has been a sharp increase in the number of 15- to 24-year-olds and those between 25 and 44 who are infected in Utah – so much so that those age groups have now usurped those 65 and over as the leading age group with COVID-19 in the state.

Graph showing the COVID-19 infection rates between different age groups since Dec. 25, 2021 as of Jan. 6, 2022, with a large spike among those in the 15-24 and 25-44 age groups | Graph by Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Among this younger demographic was a youth between one and 14 years old in Salt Lake County who died from COVID-19, according to the Utah Department of Health on Thursday. 

While Nolen said children are still less likely to be hospitalized than adults, she said there is something different about seeing a child hooked up to a ventilator.

“Even if it’s a small percentage of kids in the hospital, that’s a lot of kids in the hospital,” Nolen said. 

In the United Kingdom, which experienced the worst of its omicron surge a month ago, a study of 97,000 people by Imperial College London determined that children 1 to 15 were 3 times more likely to be infected with omicron than previous variants. 

‘It’s only mild’

In several studies, omicron has proven to be much more transmissible than previous variants. But it has also proven to more likely to result in less severe disease. 

Stock photo.| Photo by
Kateryna Onyshchuk /iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

But Dr. Arlen Jarret, chief medical officer with Steward Healthcare, said the larger numbers of infected by omicron will negate any benefit to hospital capacities from a milder form of the disease.

“The number of people infected is so overwhelming that this translates into hospitalizations.”

And while omicron has proved to be milder in the case of those who are vaccinated and boosted with breakthrough cases, there is some evidence that may not be the case for the unvaccinated.

Doctors and nurses report among those they are seeing right now in the hospital for COVID-19, they are seeing next to no individuals who have been boosted, a few vaccinated individuals who have not had a booster shot and “mostly” unvaccinated individuals. 

“One thing for certain is a big component of severity for omicron has to do with immunity. The risk of hospitalization is lower for those with more immunity,” Webb said. “That can’t be emphasized enough.”

According to Utah Department of Health statistics, an unvaccinated individual in the state is 17 times more likely to die if they get COVID-19 and 9 times more likely to be hospitalized.

Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health, said those relying on omicron being “mild” are misinformed.

I wouldn’t bet my life on this just being a cold,” Swaminathan said. “The risk of hospitalization is much higher among younger-aged groups among unvaccinated. We have people under 40 fighting for their lives in the hospital with omicron.

“The virus takes the path of least resistance. The path of least resistance are those who are unvaccinated,” Swaminathan added.  

On Wednesday, the CDC reduced the age to 12 for people to get booster vaccine doses as long as it has been five months or more since their last shot.

And Nolen said even though omicron is more likely to cause breakthrough infections among those who have been vaccinated, where vaccines are succeeding is that those with them – especially boosters – are not really being hospitalized or dying.  

“We know these vaccines can keep people from being really ill. You might get the illness but you won’t be hospitalized,” Nolen said. “To me, that’s a win.”

COVID in an elevator

Swaminathan said studies out just this week have made him stop taking an elevator.

Stock photo.| Photo by
AndreyPopov/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

He said omicron is so contagious that it could infect someone wearing even a mask in seconds if it so much as dips below their nose. 

“This is aerosol transmitted,” Swaminathan said. “With this virus being as contagious as measles, if someone coughed in an elevator before they exited, all it would take for you to be infected is for your mask to be off for a second.”

And when asked how likely it would be for someone to get omicron is they walk into a supermarket without a mask and others aren’t wearing them, Swaminathan said it is extremely likely.

“In a store with a large amount of people, if you go into a space with more than a dozen people there is more likely to be COVID floating around right now,” Swaminathan said.

Government response: It’s up to you

Gov. Spencer Cox, who was not involved in the Zoom press conference Thursday and has not held a COVID-related press conference since the summer, maintained the position he has had since September in a statement released Thursday afternoon.

It says that the government has provided everything it can through easy access to vaccines and recommendations on preventative measures and that it’s now up to each individual to take those recommendations to heart but nobody is going to force it on them.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the ceremonial groundbreaking for Cedar Breaks National Monument’s new visitor center, Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah, Sept. 7, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“The good news is we have the tools to beat this, but they only work if we use them. If, for whatever reason, you have been putting off getting vaccinated or boosted, now is the time,” Cox said. “I am more optimistic than ever that this wave will bring an end to the pandemic as we know it. Please be kind and patient as we work to get through this together.”

There are also no actions planned for the upcoming session of the state legislature as far as COVID-19 prevention. However, there are two bills – including one sponsored by St. George Rep. Walt Brooks – that would curtail the ability of employers to mandate that employees be immunized against COVID-19. 

While expressing opposition to any government mandates on vaccines, Cox has previously said he would veto any bill that would curtail the rights of businesses to enforce vaccinations. 

Greg Bell, president and CEO of the Utah Hospital Association that oversees all of the state’s hospitals, said at this point he doesn’t expect any help from the legislature. 

In this July 2021 photo, medical staff at Intermountain Medical Center prepare to attend to a COVID-19 patient by dinning protective gear. Murray, Utah | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare

“Generally we have come to the position that this is an individual problem at this point. We don’t know what the Legislature can do,” Bell said. “We just urge every Utahn to make good individual decisions at this point.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Webb, who said politicians aren’t going to curtail COVID-19 in Southern Utah, only Southern Utahns can.

“This is a team sport. This is the time to engage. There’s no political option that can resolve this crisis,” Webb said. “The only way to resolve this crisis is pulling ourselves together. We can engage together to combat this.”

Southern Utah coronavirus count as of Thursday, according to Utah Department of Health

Positive COVID-19 tests: 48,389 (7-day average of 263.00 per day, up 131.3% in last week)

Active cases: 3,050 (rising since Dec. 30)

  • Washington County (High in Transmission Index): 733.86 per 100K rate in 14 days, rising since Dec. 30
  • Iron County (High): 672.37, rising
  • Kane County (High): 416.98, rising
  • Garfield County (High): 356.44, rising
  • Beaver County (High): 384.56, steady

Hospitalized: 48 (no change, data not updated since Dec. 30)

Deaths: 506 (9 since Dec. 30)

New infections per day in Southern Utah:

  • Friday (Dec. 31): 214
  • Saturday (Jan. 1): 200
  • Sunday (Jan. 2): 168
  • Monday (Jan. 3): 197
  • Tuesday (Jan. 4): 233
  • Wednesday (Jan. 5): 312
  • Thursday (Jan. 6): 517

Current Utah seven-day average: 5,083 (rising)

Fully vaccinated in  Southern Utah: 119,006 (45.5% fully vaccinated, +0.02% since Dec. 30)

  • St. George: 49.06% fully vaccinated (+0.28%)  
  • Cedar City: 41.24% (+0.25%) 
  • Washington City: 44.57% (+0.26%) 
  • Ivins/Santa Clara: 52.12% (+0.16%) 
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 38.95% (+0.23%)  
  • Enterprise/Veyo/Springdale/Hildale: 44.52% (+0.15%) 
  • Beaver/Garfield/Kane counties: 44.52% (+0.29%)

Southern Utah schools with active COVID-19 infections as of Thursday, according to Utah Department of Health

NOTE: Utah Department of Health currently provides only ranges of the number of infections in each district, rather than exact figures. Figures may be an overall undercount as not all infections among students are reported to the state.

    • Washington County School District: 70 to 184 (rising since Dec. 30)
    • Iron County School District: 11 to 35 (rising)
    • Kane County School District: 2-8 (rising)
    • Garfield County School District: 0 (steady)
    • Beaver County School District: 1-4 (steady)
    • Southwest Utah Charter Schools: 10-19 (steady)
    • Southwest Utah Private Schools: 0 (steady)

Schools in yellow (In danger of moving to test-to-stay): None
Schools in red (Students/staff must test negative to attend): None
Top 5 schools: Snow Canyon High (Washington) 9 active infections, Vista School (Southwest Utah Charter) 7, Snow Canyon Middle (Washington) 6, Legacy School (Washington) 6, Crimson Cliffs High  (Washington) 6.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Those who can currently get the first dose of the vaccine: Everyone ages 5 and over. Those 5-18 can only receive the Pfizer vaccine. Use vaccinefinder.org to find clinics that have the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Those who can receive the second dose: Those who received their first injection 28 days or more before the appointment time.
  • Those who can receive a booster dose: Those who received Pfizer or Moderna at least five months ago and are 12 or older. Those who received Johnson & Johnson at least two months ago and are 18 or older. Booster shots can be of any form of COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The Southwest Utah Public Health Department have returned to walk-in appointments. Some pharmacies and stores are offering walk-up appointments. Check the links below before going.
  • Must wear a short-sleeve shirt at appointment and should have a personal ID.
  • Vaccines are free of charge.

Washington County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department St. George office, 620 S. 400 East, St George

For hours and more information: Click here 

Iron County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Cedar City office, 260 DL Sargent Dr., Cedar City, 84721.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Kane County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Kanab office, 445 N. Main St., Kanab.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Garfield County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Panguitch office, 601 Center St., Panguitch.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Beaver County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Beaver Office,  75 1175 North, Beaver.

For hours and more information: Click here 

St. George Regional Hospital/Intermountain Healthcare:

Where: 400 East Campus St. George Regional Hospital,  544 S. 400 East, St. George.

Reservations: Click to register

FourPoints Health:

Where: Various locations.

For hours and more information:: Click here

Revere Health:

Where: Revere Health Campus,  2825 E. Mall Drive, St. George.

Reservations: Call (435) 673-6131 to determine if the vaccine is available.

Albertsons:

Where: 745 N Dixie Dr in St. George and 915 Red Cliffs Dr. in Washington City.

Reservations: Click to register

Harmons:

Where: 1189 E. 700 South in St. George and 3520 Pioneer Parkway in Santa Clara.

Reservations: Click to register

Lin’s Marketplace:

Where: 1930 W. Sunset Blvd. and 2928 E. Mall Drive in St. George, 1120 State St. in Hurricane and 150 N Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Smith’s Food and Drug:

Where: 20 N. Bluff St. and 565 S. Mall Drive in St. George and 633 S. Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Target:

Where: 275 S River Rd. in St. George.

Reservations: Click to register

Walmart:

Where: 2610 Pioneer Rd. in St. George, 625 W. Telegraph St. in Washington City, 180 N. 3400 West in Hurricane and 1330 S. Providence Center Dr. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Family pharmacies:

Where: Several locations

Reservations: Use vaccinefinder.org to find a location near you

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2022, all rights reserved.

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