‘The beginning of the end:’ First COVID-19 vaccines arrive at Utah hospitals

The first supply of the COVID-19 vaccine in Utah is opened up at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Utah on Dec. 14, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The first approved vaccines for COVID-19 are now in Utah, but it might not be until Wednesday that they are first administered. 

The first supply of the COVID-19 vaccine in Utah is opened up at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Utah on Dec. 14, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

At the same time, the move to get the vaccine to more medical professionals in Southern Utah beyond Dixie Regional Medical Center has been accelerated.

The first two shipments of two boxes each were unloaded at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo and LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City early Monday. As of this writing, they have yet to arrive at Dixie Regional Medical Center and may not do so until later in the week.

Nevertheless, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain, said Monday was a pivotal day in the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed 117 people and infected nine of every 100 people in Southern Utah since March.

“Today signals the beginning of the end of this pandemic in Utah,” Stenehjem said. “We’ve looked under the hood … the data submitted to the FDA, and we feel this vaccine is safe and effective. I have no hesitation to personally being vaccinated.”

When the vaccine does arrive at Dixie Regional, the hospital’s parent company, Intermountain Healthcare, said Monday that it would not be administering the vaccine to staff at any of its hospitals until Wednesday. 

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain Healthcare, seen during a Zoom teleconference on Dec. 14, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

Dr. Kristin Dascomb, medical director of infection prevention for employee health for Intermountain, said the reason for that is Intermountain did not begin scheduling appointments for staff until the vaccine was approved by the Federal Drug Administration on Saturday and said it still needs to prepare caregivers to administer it.

Intermountain has previously stated that the vaccine will not be mandatory for personnel at its hospitals.

Staff that deals directly with COVID-19 patients at the St. George hospital – including doctors, nurses, specialists and janitorial staff – will be the first in line to get the vaccine. However, Dascomb said the process is being accelerated to move on to vaccinate those at other hospitals, including Cedar City Hospital, which also deals directly with COVID-19 patients.

While Dixie Regional has handled all COVID-19 patients in Southern Utah’s counties during most of the pandemic, Cedar City Hospital has now taken in its first COVID-19 patients in the wake of Dixie Regional reaching full capacity last week and a large increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths in Cedar City and Iron County over the last three weeks. 

The U.S. Department of Health has, for the first time, started releasing weekly data on the number of COVID-19 patients and the capacity status of hospitals throughout the country. 

The Department of Health reports at the end of last week, Cedar City Hospital had 17% of its beds filled with COVID-19 patients and was at 58% capacity overall.

A nurse in COVID-19 protective gear enters one of the rooms in the intensive care unit inside Dixie Regional Medical Center. December 2020, St. George, Utah. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

The data shows Dixie Regional with 21% of its beds being used by COVID-19 patients with the hospital 83% full overall.

Intermountain said its hospital intensive care units are at 115% capacity. Dixie Regional’s ICU has been regularly operating beyond capacity since mid-October.

After the frontline medical workers, next in line for the vaccine later this month will be patients and staff at long-term care centers, followed by K-12 teachers. While the timetable is fluid, the vaccine will likely reach a majority of Southern Utahns by the summer.

But it’s not just the arrival of the vaccine that Stenehjem said is giving him and other hospital staff hope. It is becoming more apparent that a feared post-Thanksgiving spike on top of another spike has not happened. Stenehjem said that is evidence that a majority of Utahns took precautions for the Thanksgiving holiday. 

“Our numbers are improving, and that is a testament to the work of everyone,” Stenehjem said. “So many followed the measures for the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Chart shows cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to Dec. 14, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The 144 new infections in Southern Utah reported by the Utah Department of Health is the lowest for a Monday since Nov. 2. And there are other indicators showing that what has been a tidal wave of new infections locally since the start of October is receding.

Cedar City is the only major city locally that was seeing a rise in new infections on Monday, as for the first time during the pandemic, Cedar City had the same number of new infections as St. George.  

As the surge recedes, the deaths from it still continue. There have been three local residents whose deaths have been announced in each of the last three days. The deaths have also been moving to a younger demographic, with more deaths in the 25-44-year-old and 45-64 categories.

But as new infections become new hospitalizations a week or so later, it’s not lost on medical staff that the current drop in new infections may mean some relief for doctors and nurses.

But Stenehjem said for that relief to continue, Utahns need to do for the Christmas holiday season what they did for Thanksgiving. 

“Our message for Christmas and Hannukah is the same as Thanksgiving. Do not gather with those outside your home for the holidays. There’s no sugar coating that we are still in the throes of a pandemic,” he said. “Think of this vaccine as the light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel is still quite long.”

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.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Dec. 14, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 15,189 (224.9 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Dec. 12)

  • Washington County: 11,915 (165.1 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 2,514 (43.7 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 268 (8.1 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 262 (1.6 per day, falling)
  • Beaver County: 230 (6.3 per day, rising)

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

  • St. George: 45 (falling)
  • Washington City: 19 (falling)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 13 (falling)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 7 (falling)
  • Cedar City: 45 (rising)

Deaths: 117 (2.1 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 95 (4 new since last report: Hospitalized female 45-64, at-home female 65-84, hospitalized female 25-44, hospitalized male 45-64)
  • Iron County: 12 (2 new: Hospitalized male 45-64, long-term care male 65-84)
  • Garfield County: 7 
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2

Hospitalized: 48 (rising)

Active cases: 4,982 (rising)

Current Utah seven-day average: 2,598 (falling)

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

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