SALT LAKE CITY — One year ago Sunday, Utah received its first patient with COVID-19.
Mark Jorgensen and his wife contracted the virus while on a cruise ship in Asia, along with dozens of others — before the now-rampant disease made it to the states.
“I had no idea we’d still be doing this a year later,” Jorgensen said on Sunday, adding that he initially expected the novel SARS-CoV-2 strain would act “more like another swine flu or bird flu.”
“I’m very surprised it has lasted as long as it has,” he said.
Jorgensen, who never experienced symptoms, was admitted at Intermountain Medical Center’s special high-level isolation unit on Feb. 28, 2020, after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requested the transfer from a hospital in California. He had already been quarantined awaiting transport from Japan to the U.S. and while in California.
He spent a couple days at the Murray Intermountain facility and then, still without symptoms, was transported by ambulance — and police escort — to his home in St. George to ride out another couple weeks of quarantine.
“We certainly didn’t intend to make him the Guinea pig … but we had to learn,” said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease doctor at Intermountain who helped treat Jorgensen. He said so much has changed since one year ago.
The doctor, who had prepped and planned for COVID-19’s arrival in Utah, said it was “startling” to get the call that a positive patient was en route.
“It was then that it became real,” Vento said. Even 40 days after testing positive, Jorgensen’s tests still showed he had COVID-19, but at that point, all indications showed it was finally safe for him to leave his home.
Intermountain’s bio-containment unit is just one of a handful across the U.S. that exist in the event there is a need to isolate against certain diseases. It would not have been sufficient for all of the patients who have since been treated for COVID-19, doctors found.
At the time, quarantine was the only known method to stop the spread of disease.
“This is a terrible thing that has happened,” Vento said, adding that COVID-19 is something that will continue to be a problem, albeit less invasive, for years to come.
“We can’t be complacent,” he said. “We knew it was a marathon. A marathon is 26 miles and we’re somewhere in the middle, in the teens or 20s … we have to keep running and not think about the finish line. We have to keep fighting the good fight.”
Utah numbers well off peak
Utah’s daily case counts had reached over 5,000 at the peak, after having been as low as a couple dozen in the beginning. On Sunday, the seven-day average of new cases stood at 647, compared to 1,425 on Feb. 1. Vento said it appears the virus is plateauing in Utah and across the states, as mutated strains are popping up, keeping the disease quite virulent.
On Sunday, the Utah Department of Health reported 465 new cases of disease confirmed by tests. It brings the total number of people who have become infected with COVID-19 to 371,235 in Utah.
In addition, there were six more deaths reported in Utah on Sunday. Among those were four men and two women, including a Summit County man between the ages of 45 and 64 who was not hospitalized at the time of his death; a Salt Lake County man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized; a Tooele County man between 45 and 64 who was not hospitalized; a Utah County man older than 85 who was a long-term care facility resident; a Weber County woman between 65 and 84 who was a long-term care facility resident; and, a Salt Lake County woman between 65 and 84 who was a long-term care facility resident.
COVID-19 has claimed the lives of 1,935 Utah residents since the pandemic began.
Nationally, there have been 28.6 million cases and more than 512,000 deaths caused by COVID-19, according to CDC reports. Recently, as Vento said, new cases in the U.S. have settled around 70,000 a day.
Vento said he figured COVID-19 wouldn’t be an issue past last summer … “but the virus has really shown us that it makes the timeline, and we have to adjust.”
Because of the population and demographics in Utah, Vento knew the state wouldn’t experience the level of disease felt in New York or Washington state, where long-term care facilities were hard hit.
He said hospitals in Utah never reached crisis standards.
Since Jorgensen arrived at the Utah hospital to be treated for COVID-19, 14,695 people have been hospitalized for the virus at hospitals throughout the state. On Sunday, the state health department reported 203 people are currently hospitalized with the disease, 20 fewer than was reported on Saturday and 38 less than a week ago.
With case numbers still declining, hospitalizations are also following the same trend in Utah. Health officials have said the number of deaths will respond accordingly, but are a lagging indicator of disease.
Utah has tested 2.2 million people for COVID-19, using a total of 3.8 million tests since March of last year.
Maximizing vaccines, mask wearing best way to contain disease
The state has fully vaccinated 254,569 people with two doses of COVID-19 vaccine. In all, however, the state has administered 715,536 doses, including 14,243 more than was reported on Saturday. At least 820,940 doses of the Moderna and/or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have been delivered to Utah. Appointments to get vaccinated fill quickly as the state still receives doses of the vaccines on a weekly basis.
A third available vaccine, manufactured by Johnson and Johnson, was approved for widespread distribution on Saturday and will be arriving in Utah shortly, officials said.
Vento said vaccines need to be “maximized” as a weapon for containment of disease.
“We need to continue doing the things we know work,” he said, adding that wearing masks, social distancing, limiting gatherings, and more, will help shut down new viral strains and keep infections at bay.
COVID-19, Vento said, “is probably here to stay.”
But that shouldn’t incite fear, he said.
Jorgensen, who is eligible for vaccination due to his age and having been a transplant patient, has yet to be vaccinated and said he’s wary about it, but would do what his doctor advises. And while he wasn’t symptomatic, he has since developed medical issues, including mental fog and pinched nerves in his eye that may be a result of his COVID-19 infection early last year.
“I may not have skated as free from effects like I thought I did,” he said. “But we both believe we were blessed to get off as easy as we did.”
He and his wife have gone about normal life and he spoke with media via Zoom from his accommodations in Costa Rica on Sunday. He doesn’t regret traveling to Japan when he did and said, “stuff happens.”
“We had a great time with a little side adventure afterward,” Jorgensen said. “But we’ll definitely cruise again. We’re not letting fear of this stop us.”