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Doctor on vaping illness: ‘It’s scary to see a young person this sick’

Dr. Dixie Harris has seen a new patient who became sick from vaping every day this week.

They come in with chills, high fevers and nausea. Some say they feel like their skin is crawling or that they feel like dying. One was so sick that his family had to carry him into the hospital. Forty-five percent of patients land in the ICU, 23% on a ventilator. Many are discharged on oxygen. Their average age is 26.

“We just don’t see this. This is very unusual,” said Harris, an Alta View Hospital pulmonologist. “Frankly as a health care provider, it’s very scary to see a young person this sick.”

Because the symptoms mimic the flu, doctors worry that people who become sick from vaping won’t realize how sick they really are, especially heading into the flu season.

Harris was among several doctors, health advocates and state legislators who sat down Thursday with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, at Primary Children’s Hospital to talk about vaping-related illness and what to do about it.

Romney is sponsoring legislation to ban flavored e-cigarettes and tax vaping products like regular cigarettes to fund a public awareness campaign about the dangers of vaping. He also sponsored a bill to prohibit the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to anyone under 21 nationwide.

“It’s not safe,” he said. “We haven’t communicated that as we should have.”

The discussion came a day after Utah health officials announced the first death in Utah linked to vaping. A Salt Lake County man under age 30 had vaped the marijuana compound THC and not been hospitalized, according to the Utah Department of Health.

State health officials have reported 76 other cases of vaping-related lung disease in Utah as they investigate another 14 potential cases. More than 90% were hospitalized and many were treated in intensive care units. Ninety-four percent of those people reported they had vaped THC products.

Harris said almost all of the patients she has been involved with had inhaled both THC and nicotine. Patients, she said, told her they thought they were buying sealed, brand-name products that were safe.

“That’s where it gets really muddy to try and figure this out,” she said.

Of the 60 patients treated through Intermountain Healthcare, none have died, Harris said.

“We have not lost one yet,” she said. “But it makes you very nervous that even in the best of hands we could have a death.”

With an estimated 25% of high school students vaping regularly, health care providers have had to change the questions they ask young people.

“We didn’t even ask about it two years ago, and now we’re having to ask every teenage patient,” said. Dr. Joni Hemond, a University of Utah academic pediatrician.

If doctors ask someone if they’re smoking, they’ll say no even if they’re vaping, she said. They will see smoking as terrible, but vaping as safe and fun, she said. About two-thirds of teenagers don’t know that Juul pods contain nicotine, she said.

“They don’t realize that that’s why they’re wanting to use their Juul pods all the time,” she said.

State Sen. Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, said as the parent of two high school students, he’s concerned about the vaping crisis.

“They don’t call them bathrooms in high school anymore. They call them vape rooms,” he said.

Dennis Romboy/Deseret News