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Poop will help warn of COVID-19 surges as Utah ends emergency response

Posted at 3:33 PM, Mar 30, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-30 19:21:26-04

SALT LAKE CITY — As of Thursday, Utah's COVID-19 emergency response will end.

The Utah Department of Health will close its mass testing and monoclonal antibody facilities. People who need testing or treatment can get them from private providers.

"We will also retain some at-home test kits to help with targeted communities, and always working during this period to make sure testing is available to vulnerable communities," said Nate Checketts, the executive director of the state health department. "So we will be continuing some sites in those communities and also a new self-collection model we will be developing over the next couple of months."

The Utah Department of Health, which has been going daily since COVID-19 first arrived in the state in 2020, will also end its daily reporting of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Instead, it will provide weekly reports with an emphasis on trend monitoring.

"We have syndromic surveillance. That’s a system where we look at who goes to the emergency rooms and what they’re diagnosed with and we can see when people go for COVID and when they go for other illnesses," said Dr. Leisha Nolen, the state epidemiologist.

State health officials will also be monitoring people's poop — specifically wastewater samples — to determine if COVID-19 is surging in the community. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality has provided wastewater monitoring for over a year now, with significant accuracy on where the virus is in the state.

"The sewage water that comes out of all of our houses, we can see whether or not there’s COVID in that water," Dr. Nolen said. "We’ve been able to do that for over a year and we have good data showing when it goes up, we know that cases are going up."

On Wednesday, DEQ's wastewater monitoring map showed overall virus declines across the state, with increases in areas around Tooele, Vernal and portions of Salt Lake and Summit counties.

The Utah Department of Health said it intends to end its weekly mapping of COVID-19 transmission levels, referring people to maps created by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Dr. Nolen said she fully expects COVID-19 to surge again in Utah, but believes it can be managed.

"We all expect there will be additional waves," she said.

Checketts said the state health department is also prepared to ramp up again, should cases surge to the point where hospital capacity is threatened and the health care system is in danger of being overwhelmed. Some contracts remain just in case, he said.

Figures provided to FOX 13 News show the pandemic response has cost Utah $30.4 billion so far — more than the entire state budget. The Governor's Office of Planning and Budget said that covers everything from personal protective equipment and testing to economic stimulus. The state is being reimbursed for the bulk of it by the federal government.

The Utah State Legislature did appropriate some money in the event of another surge but does not need to be involved in restarting the state's response, Checketts told FOX 13 News.

"This is an operational decision and as we watch and monitor what is going on and related to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re watching where the state is regarding vaccinations, boosters and levels of previous infection," he said.

The state is watching the BA2 variant of COVID-19, which is surging across the globe. However, Dr. Nolen said it was not having a big impact in Utah so far. She urged people to get vaccinated and boosted. As of Wednesday, 66% of eligible Utahns are considered fully vaccinated. The number of booster shots is lower, Dr. Nolen said. Statewide, it's about 28%.

"Less than 30% of our community has that extra level of protection," she said, urging people to get their booster shots. "Which is going to be useful if we get another round."