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Expert: Hospitals are at the brink and we need to rethink a return to school

FILE PHOTO - A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics survey is shedding some light on how Utahns feel about wearing a mask in public, which includes an interesting partisan split.

SALT LAKE CITY — On Friday, Utah set a one-day record of 867 COVID-19 cases. If this trajectory continues, it won’t be safe for kids to return to school in the fall, according to a leading infectious-disease expert in Utah. 

Gov. Gary Herbert recently mandated that masks must be worn by students, visitors and faculty in all K-12 schools and on buses.

Yet Dr. Eddie Stenehjem of Intermountain Healthcare says he isn’t comfortable sending kids to school at the current rate of cases — and also argued that data on hospitalizations on the state’s website is inaccurate.

He joined Dave Noriega and Debbie Dujanovic to discuss where the state stands now in its battle with COVID-19.

Return to school in fall?

“You don’t feel it would be safe for kids to return to school. Tell us where we need to be for you to feel comfortable with kids being in school?” Debbie asked.

“The big thing for schools is that we follow the data,” Stenehjem said. “What we are in the midst of right now is a pretty significant increase in cases and continues to do so. We had 867 cases on Friday. I think it’s important for us to project out and look what’s going to happen in August and September from a school standpoint. At the same time, we have to address what’s happening right now and how do we change the trajectory of our curve.”

Stenehjem added that if the number of cases continuing to rise, along with hospital space continuing to diminish, it will be challenging to return students and teachers to schools safely.

“I think it’s going to be a continuing conversation clearly as we see what our numbers do over the next month,” he said.

Mask mandate needed

“Are we on a trajectory with some of the hardest hit cities?” Dave asked.

“Take a look at what’s happening in Florida, Texas and Arizona. Our curves are looking very similar to those curves. . . We are certainly in this upswing that many of these states are in the midst of right now. If we don’t change our behaviors and our practices, we’re gonna be right there with [them],” Stenehjem said.

“Doctor, do you feel the governor’s mask mandate for kids and teachers and faculty in schools will help reduce the spread?” Debbie asked. “I listened to the entire press conference. Doctors were very adamant that we need a statewide mask mandate and not just one for schools. Is that still correct?”

“That’s absolutely right. The fact of the matter is masks in schools are going to be useful. They’re going to be challenging for kids to wear. We’re gonna have to expect that they won’t be worn perfectly, but hey, it’s better than nothing. . . . Again, that’s for August. What are we doing right now? And right now we need a statewide mandate,” Stenehjem said.

“Would you be in favor of mandating social distancing and mandating handwashing?” Dave asked.

Stenehjem said he is seeing some states moving back to stay-at-home orders. He said the number one strategy for combating respiratory viruses that are causing epidemics and pandemics is reducing close contacts. It’s incumbent on all of us to reduce the close contacts we have, he said. 

“That means staying home and staying safe,” Stenehjem said, adding that if you do have to go out, wear a mask and practice good hand hygiene.

Hospital beds

Debbie pointed out that the state Health Department’s (UDOH) numbers on COVID-19 hospitalizations don’t match what doctors were citing at their press conference. According to the UDOH website as of July 13, the data show:

  • Percent of all non-ICU Beds Occupied: 51%
  • Percent of all ICU Beds Occupied: 66.8%

But doctors were saying the bed capacity is closer to 77%, she said.

“What you really want to look at is what is the ICU bed capacity at your major referral centers,” Stenehjem said. “Those are the big centers that we send our sickest patients to. These are where you want to be cared for if you have severe COVID-19 and require a ventilator.”

He said those large health care facilities are now running at 77% to 79% bed capacity. He added that full capacity is between 80% and 85% because there have to be some beds always available to trauma patients such as stroke or heart attack victims.

“We’re really bumping up against that. Once that happens, then we start changing the way we do practice on a day-to-day basis. We start to open up ICU beds in places where there weren’t traditionally ICU beds,” he said. “That’s going to change the care.”

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app, a.s well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play