As cases rise with the delta variant, here’s how healthcare workers, hospitals and researchers are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
Cierra England graduated from nursing school in February 2020 and has been treating COVID patients since completing her orientation at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, where she previously worked as a technician.
Right now, her job looks like it was 10 months ago, before vaccines became widely available.
“Our numbers right now basically look like we were last October,” England said. “School hasn’t even started school yet. So it’s like, ‘Okay, we’re already so bad. How much worse can we? Like, how much is it going to get worse? ‘ “
“There is just a lot of tension and uneasiness. “
On August 2, more than 82% of Utah’s intensive care beds were full as coronavirus cases began to return to rates seen a year ago. Over the past month, the number of COVID patients in intensive care units has risen from 10% to 30% – and almost all of them are unvaccinated, Governor Spencer Cox said on August 3.
After nearly a year and a half of the pandemic, hospital workers are exhausted. Some have left positions open that hospitals have not been able to fill, so last winter’s “peak” capacities are not available.
“I think everyone feels a bit frustrated as healthcare workers,” said Kaydi Marshall, intensive care technician at Intermountain Healthcare ICU. “We went through our big push last year and the cases kind of started to go down, it was kind of like we were going to start taking a break. And now we are seeing more and more cases again. “
“Delta is a game changer”
As of July 3, 2020, 679 cases of COVID-19 were reported to the Utah Department of Health. As of August 3, 2020, there were 370 cases of COVID-19.
This year, the trend is reversed. On July 3 and August 3, the department reported 348 and 1,050 cases, respectively. It is only now that preventative measures such as masking and social distancing have been rolled back. Children under 12 cannot be vaccinated and are about to start school.
“The biggest trend really relates to the behavior of the virus,” said Dr Tom Vento, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare. “So it’s mostly the delta variant, which is much more contagious, spreads much more easily to others. As a result, we’ve seen a lot more hospitalizations, and it’s no different from the rest of the country.”
The delta variant of COVID-19 has a higher reproductive number than the COVID-19 which initially spread from Wuhan. When a person contracts the original coronavirus, about two to three other people are usually infected with that person during their illness.
With the delta strain, the breeding number would be between five and eight people. There is no higher risk of confirmed death, Vento said, but there is data from the Centers for Disease Control that “suggests there may be a higher risk of more serious illness in younger patients. based on some of the epidemiological trends that we have seen in our hospitals.
“Delta is a game changer,” Vento said. “We have generally treated viruses like this with compulsory or generalized vaccination used to prevent this spread. We do this for chickenpox, we do this for measles. We now have the delta, it’s like chickenpox, we really need to improve our game on vaccinations.
“The jury is still out on the severity of the delta, but there seems to be a good likelihood that it is more severe than the other strains depending on many factors, especially the amount of virus entering it. your body.”
Address the unvaccinated
The TriCounty region, which includes Daggett, Duchesne and Uintah counties, has the lowest vaccination rate in the state. About 31.6% of the area received at least one dose of vaccine, with 26.7% fully vaccinated.
Greg Gardiner, clinical director of Ashley Regional Medical Center in Uintah County, said their 39-bed facility was “quite full at the moment.”
“We have seen more COVID patients in the past month than we have ever seen in recent other waves,” Gardiner said. “It was exhausting to say the least. “
TriCounty Health public information officer Liberty Best said on July 29 that in the previous week, between two hospitals in the TriCounty area – Uintah Basin and Ashley Regional – the area had registered nine hospitalizations and three deaths. In the past three weeks, there have been 48 hospitalizations.
“We’ve had quite a few hospitalizations per week lately,” Best said. “As on average, there were 10 people in the hospital at a time, per day. So it was pretty intense. Mainly because we have small hospitals.
Every hospitalization for TriCounty, as of July 29, was not vaccinated.
Finding out which cases are the delta variant can be difficult. Most people in the area are tested via a rapid test, said Best, which does not test for variants.
But among the tests that were sent for variant analysis, every TriCounty result came back positive for delta, she said.
“It puts a lot of stress on us, I think actually the community too, you know, being the weakest vaccinated population,” Gardiner said. “It’s difficult, because there are a lot of people who still believe that COVID has nothing to worry about, and that it is some kind of hoax. And it is not. I wish they could see what we have to face on a daily basis to truly understand that vaccines are necessary.
“The ones that it affects more, because they haven’t been vaccinated, a lot of them wish they had the vaccine… stuff. If I had had the vaccine, I would not have experienced what I just did, especially having a medical bill. ‘ “
As the pandemic continues, so does research
As cases continue to spread across the state, a University of Utah lab is working on alternative treatments and a research project into the life cycle of the virus is nearing completion.
Dr. Michael Kay, director of biological chemistry at the University of Utah, and his lab are working on the development of inhibitors of the process COVID uses to infect cells. What Kay’s lab targets with their inhibitor doesn’t change in the delta variant either, so that should apply “essentially, we think, to any variant,” he said.
The project is still in its early stages with research into drug development, evaluation and optimization of pre-clinical drug candidates. They will take the most promising applicants and move them on to animal studies and hopefully human studies in the future.
Kay’s lab “almost immediately” began this project in conjunction with the Utah State University Antiviral Research Institute once it was clear that COVID-19 was a global pandemic and that there was no “really no effective therapy available, which is still the case today”.
“The goal of the inhibitor research, which we are doing, but many other groups are doing around the world as well, is to really complement immunization efforts,” Kay said.
The timing of this project simply depends on how the research is going. Vaccines are “much faster and easier to develop” over time because they are usually a variation of pre-existing vaccines personalized for a new disease, such as a new flu shot every year.
“A new drug is a new molecule and goes through a much longer and more arduous review process, which typically takes five to 10 years to be approved,” Kay said.
“When ‘COVID-32’ comes along, it would be wonderful to have a drug stored and ready to be deployed, and try to nip it in the bud while the vaccines are being developed, which of course will take time. , every time there is a new virus, ”Kay said.
Dr. Janet Iwasa, assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah, has been working on an animation on the life cycle of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – since last summer. Animations like these can help educate audiences and help researchers gain a more intuitive understanding of how things work on a molecular scale.
Although the animation does not touch on variants or vaccinations, Iwasa said the way the virus enters cells will be relatively the same.
“The scientific community has really come together to really try to understand this virus and how it works,” Iwasa said. “This animation is really kind of an early culmination of this knowledge that the scientific community has acquired, and not even recently, but there have been groups that have been studying coronaviruses in general for years and decades. “
With COVID-19, things are constantly changing as more is learned about different epidemics and how the virus works, which can be stressful for researchers, but Kay said learning to be nimble and responding quickly to these changes will help build confidence in future pandemics.
“There is all of this research going on that will hopefully lead to some promising products. But right now the vaccine is by far the most effective thing there is, ”Kay said. “It’s very good. It’s very safe. And people really need to understand that. They shouldn’t wait until after because research takes time, and we have [the vaccine right now.]”