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Health professionals advise vaccination ahead of holiday gatherings

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Oct 14, 2021

In this screenshot from video, Dr. Russell Vinik and Dr. Elizabeth Middleton of University of Utah Health speak during a press conference Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021.

SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 may be declining in the Southwest, but that’s not the case here in Utah and with the holidays coming up, health care workers say now is not the time to let your guard down.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen this year, but it’s not too late to get a vaccine,” said Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer for University of Utah Health. “If you get a vaccine today, you’ll have some degree of protection by Thanksgiving. We are pleading with the community. Please get vaccinated.”

During a news conference Wednesday, Vinik said the state has seen a slight upward trend in new cases. Hospitalizations across the state are running close to 600 with around 230 patients in intensive care units. The numbers, he added, are as high as they were last December and January.

“The big difference is a strain on health care personnel,” he said. “We don’t have nearly the staff to take care of these patients. We coordinate with every hospital system in the state and almost every day of the week we get pages from hospitals having trouble placing patients. Some patients are waiting 12 to 24 hours in small community hospitals and some of those don’t have respiratory therapy never mind an intensive care specialist. Every hospital in the state in strained.”

Dr. Elizabeth Middleton, associate medical director of the U of U health medical ICU, said the ICUs are full and patients are sicker than what she saw last year. She has even taken care of vaccinated people in the ICU, although most of those patients have underlying conditions their immune systems can’t fight as well. Vaccinated patients who are healthy are typically released from the hospital more quickly than those who are unvaccinated.

“Smaller communities are suffering and because of the delays, people are coming in much sicker. The trend has been younger folks and an increase in pregnant women in the ICU,” she said. “Prevention is the best thing we can do for this. Before we spend more time indoors or at large family gatherings, preventing the suffering and toll on small communities is really essential.”

Middleton said there are still many people who refuse to get the vaccine. She said while she’s seen very sick COVID-19 patients and “terrible things,” she hasn’t treated one patient who had a reaction to the vaccine.

Continuing to wear a mask is also very important, Middleton added.

“It certainly worked last year,” she said. “I’m in favor of continuing to wear masks. We don’t know who we’re dealing with in the community who may be immunocompromised.”

Cornelio Morales, health care assistant at U of U Health, said some families are getting more hostile with health care workers because they are not allowed to come into the hospital to see their loved ones if they are unvaccinated.

“They get agitated and we call security to get things under control,” he said.

Middleton said she has also seen family members get very distressed when they aren’t allowed to see their loved ones.

“There’s a huge degree of emotional strain and a level of mistrust at times,” she said. “They’ll come to us with suggestions they read on Facebook or other social media and say, ‘Just try,’ and we have to say that’s not how we practice medicine. We do let them know we have their loved one’s health and best care in mind.”

All three health care workers said with the holiday season coming up, it’s more important than ever for Utahns to take every measure available to prevent an increase in the virus.

“We certainly know family gatherings are one of the biggest ways COVID-19 get transmitted,” Vinik said. “If this happens again, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble. We have a variant that is more virulent and easier to catch. This is not the time for people to relax. We’re not out of the woods yet. Right now in Utah, our cases and hospitalizations are as high as they’ve ever been.”

Vinik stressed, however, that if you have a life-threatening illness, don’t hesitate to go to the hospital.

“Certainly, if you are sick, particularly if it’s life-threatening chest pain or shortness of breath, please come to the hospital. We will take care of you,” he said. “We will take care of everybody. You will not be turned away.”

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