Expanded testing helps Ivins City veterans home hold off COVID-19 outbreak; officials warn against gathering for Thanksgiving

ST. GEORGE — As far as the coronavirus is concerned, the outbreak at the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins City has been canceled.

One of the many patios where three flags are flown at the Southern Utah Veterans Home Friday, Ivins, Utah, Mar. 10, 2017 | Photo by Cody Blowers, St. Goerge News

A single case in a resident without symptoms was discovered and isolated on Monday, and the resident was transferred to the COVID-19 patient facility at Coral Desert Rehabilitation and Care in St. George. Residents at the veterans’ home have been tested twice since then, and there have been no positive results.

The news comes on a day the Utah Department of Health reported a single-day high of 23 deaths from the coronavirus in the states, including another three in Washington County, and medical experts gave a grave warning of what will happen if people don’t follow the recommendation to keep Thursday’s Thanksgiving dinner visitor-free.

Dr. David Creimin, medical director of the Southern Utah Veterans Home, credits a testing regiment there where residents are tested for COVID-19 at least twice a week and staff is tested once. This has limited the facility to just the one asymptomatic infection since March, even while the spread of the virus has been exploding through the rest of Southern Utah.  

Creimin said increased testing means ultimately fewer COVID-19 cases, as asymptomatic spread can be quickly isolated from the rest of the population. It’s the kind of widespread COVID-19 testing being pushed by Gov. Gary Herbert and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, though other political leaders have criticized increased testing because they say it increases cases of the virus. 

The Freedom Eagle Monument with a 10-foot wingspan soars 20 feet above the ground overlooking the Southern Utah Veterans Home in Ivins, Utah July 17, 2018 | Photo by Ryan Rees, St. George News

“It’s due to our testing,” Creimin said. “We test twice a week and that’s the way to catch it when it’s asymptomatic. We’ve done an extremely good job.”

That still didn’t keep the home from being inundated with calls Wednesday after the Utah Department of Health and St. George News reported an outbreak at the Ivins City facility Tuesday. 

“We’re getting calls from (family members) about wanting to pull their family member out,” Creimin said. “Department of health only gives out nonspecific numbers. We had one isolated case Monday morning and that person has been treated.”

For purposes of medical privacy laws, public health departments, hospitals and other medical bodies are limited to the information they can release to the public and the media. 

The Utah Department of Health reports outbreaks in long-term care facilities as either “five or less” or “more than five.”

A Southern Utah Veterans Home resident pets the facility’s new service dog, “Ginger,” provided by Loving Angel Service Dogs, Ivins, Utah, March 4, 2019 | Photo by Joseph Witham, St. George News

There are currently four long-term care facility outbreaks combined between the St. George and Cedar City areas listed by the Utah Department of Health and all are described as “five or less” meaning they could range from as little as one infection to five. 

That does not include the Southern Utah Veterans Home. But what does continue is the isolation.

Visitors are not allowed and haven’t been in months. While it is recommended that people not have anyone from outside the house over for Thanksgiving dinner this year, that has been a status quo since March for the men and women who served their nation that are at the Ivins City home 

“Our veterans aren’t getting visits right now other than window visits and phone calls. It’s tough on them and our staff but we do our best,” Creimin said.

Doctors issue warning about Thanksgiving

If there has been one big sign of dread for doctors, nurses and other medical staff at hospitals during the pandemic, it’s been seeing a holiday weekend on the calendar. 

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain Healthcare, seen during a Zoom teleconference on Nov 25, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Memorial Day, July 4th and Halloween have all been followed by a long spike in infections that become a surge in hospitalizations and deaths. 

But Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, said the Thanksgiving weekend is its own animal.

“When you look back on Memorial Day, Halloween, we’ve seen a large spike seven to 10 days after the holiday. What makes Thanksgiving so much worse is those holidays have focused on being outside and the beautiful outdoors of Utah,” Stenehjem said. “For Thanksgiving, we’re going inside and we know transmission for indoor events is so much more than outdoor events.”

The governor and the Utah Department of Health have already issued recommendations for having a safer Thanksgiving holiday that includes keeping the holiday dinner limited to those in the home and instilling masks and distancing if that is not possible. 

Keeping out visitors on Thanksgiving is an even tougher proposition in the family-filled culture of Utah, but Stenehjem said the consequences of not doing so may lead to post-holiday tragedy for families. 

Chart shows the percentage chance of being exposed to COVID-19 in room with 10 people in certain cities as of Nov. 25, 2020, according to the Georgia Tech biological sciences department. | Background photos by Chris Reed, St. George News, Pixabay; Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“The consequences of not doing this will be dire. We plead with you to stay within your families and your homes,” Stenehjem said. “We think Thanksgiving might be a super-spreader event that will increase our case count in seven to 10 days, which in turn will burden even more our hospitals.”

The Georgia Tech Risk Assessment Study, which shows the chance of being exposed to COVID-19 in a room with other people, has now been made available to the public.

Currently, it shows that someone in a room with 10 people outside the household for Thanksgiving has a 39% chance of being exposed to the coronavirus. That possibility is 30% in Iron County and as much as 49% in Garfield County.

Stenehjem said all of the hospitals in the Intermountain system – including Dixie Regional Medical Center, Cedar City Hospital and Garfield Memorial Hospital – have activated surge plans to deal with the holiday and the post-holiday period for not only COVID-19 patients but those with other medical issues. And Stenehjem said with the intensive care units running beyond capacity, it is already at the point where patients with strokes and heart attacks that would normally be placed in the ICU are having to be placed on the regular floor.

Pierce Whalen is tested at the Utah National Guard’s mobile testing site for COVID-19 Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick
Bowmer, Associated Press

“Our ICUs are absolutely full of COVID patients,” said Stenehjem, who added elective, or nonemergency surgeries, are being postponed. But that doesn’t mean those not getting surgeries are having a happy holiday. “There are people with things like knee surgeries. These are people in real pain.”

Infections showed continued signs of going down Wednesday – Southern Utah was down to 155 new positive results for the virus and the state was below 2,000 new infections for the first time since Nov. 1. 

However, the cycle of the pandemic – from new cases to hospitalizations and deaths seven to 14 days later – means over 300 new infections a day in Southern Utah last week means there are still a lot of COVID-19 patients on the way to Dixie Regional Medical Center. And the number of local residents hospitalized with the virus hit a new single-day high of 54 Wednesday, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. 

“The large numbers of patients in the last seven days will be hitting our hospitals in the next seven to 10 days,” Stenehjem said.

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.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Nov. 25, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

(Note: No numbers will be released and most testing sites will be closed on Thanksgiving)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 11,066 (229.6 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Nov. 24)

  • Washington County: 8,840 (175 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 1,681(42 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 1538 (3.6 per day, rising)
  • Garfield County: 235 (6.3 per day, falling)
  • Beaver County: 152 (2.7 per day, falling)

New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):

  • St. George: 78 (falling)
  • Washington City: 20 (falling)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 20 (falling)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 7 (falling)
  • Cedar City: 15 (falling)

Deaths: 86 (1.9 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 71 (3 new: hospitalized female 45-64, long-term care female over 85, female over 85 at home.)
  • Iron County: 6 
  • Garfield County: 6
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2

Hospitalized: 54 (rising)

Active cases: 3,873 (falling)

Recovered: 7,057

Current Utah seven-day average: 3,113 (falling)

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!