SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox warned that Utahns who have not yet gotten the COVID-19 vaccine should be worried as the state's cases start to spike again and hospitals start to fill up.
"If you’re unvaccinated, you should be worried this Fourth of July," the governor said, adding: "The good news is, you can still get vaccinated before the Fourth of July."
Roughly 95% of all COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are unvaccinated people. Gov. Cox expressed some frustration that people have not yet taken advantage of the free and widely available vaccines.
"Ninety-five percent of you don’t have to die, and 95% of you don’t have to be hospitalized and go through that incredible pain," he said.
Utah's Department of Health said the state is in a surge, driven by the Delta variant of the virus which is much more contagious. On Thursday, Utah reported 540 new cases and four new deaths.
"We had modeling that predicted we would reach 600 cases per day and we’re nearly there. Models as of yesterday, not taking into account any additional surge we may expect from a return to school are approaching 1,000 to 1,200 cases per day. We do not want to go back there," said Dr. Michelle Hofmann, the agency's deputy director.
Hospitals are starting to fill up. In addition to COVID-19 cases, they are seeing more people who put off medical care over the past year because of the pandemic. Where they had overflow space last year, those have closed and Utah's hospitals don't have the staffing they once did.
Health care workers are bracing for a surge in cases following the Fourth of July weekend. It is also the time emergency rooms are busy because of accidents and other issues related to the holiday.
"This is not over. The vaccine is very important to end this. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over," said Dr. Kencee Graves, with the University of Utah Health system.
Dr. Graves said Utah has more cases of the Delta variant than the city of Los Angeles.
Asked if the spike in COVID-19 cases could prompt Utah to revisit restrictions the legislature ended earlier this year, Gov. Cox told FOX 13: "Absolutely not."
"We’re pleading for a return to sanity and asking people to get their vaccines," he said. "We have the answer to all of this and it isn’t restrictions. The answer isn’t to destroy people’s jobs. The answer isn’t to force people to wear masks. The answer is to get vaccinated."
Gov. Cox had a goal of getting 70% of eligibile Utahns with at least one dose of the vaccine by the Fourth of July. He conceded on Thursday that won't happen. But Utah will come close. As of Thursday, it was 61% of Utahns over age 12 having one dose. But when you factor in some services that don't necessarily report to the state (like tribal services or federal resources) it would be closer to 69%.
Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson offered some good news for parents who may not yet have gotten their children vaccinated: new guidance from health authorities said that fully vaccinated children no longer have to quarantine when exposed to COVID-19.
"These are kids who will not have to quarantine if they get exposed to someone who has COVID-19 when they go back to the school in the fall," she said.
Thursday's briefing on COVID-19 from the Utah State Capitol was the last regularly scheduled one. They were held daily, then weekly since the COVID-19 pandemic hit during Governor Gary Herbert's administration. Gov. Cox's office said they would hold future briefings on COVID-19 as the situation warrants.
It was also the first news conference since the pandemic that reporters were physically allowed into. Throughout much of the last year, the governor would take questions from reporters who appeared on a screen in front of him via Zoom, with a media pool feed broadcasting his remarks to the people of Utah.