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Utah passes 1 million COVID-19 cases, caution urged with BA.5 variant

Posted at 1:17 PM, Jul 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-21 19:10:53-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah passed one million confirmed cases of COVID-19 this week, with health officials urging people to begin taking precautions as the BA.5 Omicron variant continues to spread rapidly.

"People should be concerned about getting COVID-19 right now. The transmission rates are really high," said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases specialist at Intermountain Healthcare.

Hospitalizations have been increasing in recent weeks. While the virus is not as severe as previous versions, it is more transmissible and seems to work around prior infections. State epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said there have been increases in hospitalizations, and slight increases in intensive care unit hospitalizations and deaths.

"What’s problematic is like so many industries, hospitals are overstretched, they don’t have staff and they can’t find more staff. You take an understaffed hospital and increase cases a little bit, it can be pretty bad," Dr. Nolen said in an interview with FOX 13 News on Thursday.

Seven counties — Salt Lake, Tooele, Summit, Wasatch, Piute, Wayne, and San Juan — are listed as high transmission areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. But the Utah Department of Health & Human Services is not likely to recommend any health restrictions as other states have started doing. The Utah State Legislature has limited the ability for local health orders to be issued without backing from county councils or commissions (and has terminated county mandates in the past).

"I really don’t see Utah going back to a mask mandate," said Dr. Stenehjem.

Instead, the focus is on personal risk and encouraging people to get vaccinated. Dr. Stenehjem said he would strongly encourage immuno-suppressed people go back to wearing masks. But he also recommended others start wearing masks when indoors in areas that are not well ventilated.

Dr. Nolen said she encouraged the same, noting that for most people the infection would not be as severe but for others it could be quite harmful.

"If you’re someone who’s immuno-suppressed? I do think it would be worrying and I would encourage them to wear masks at all times," she said. "I personally am wearing a mask when I'm inside. I don’t want that infection."

The good news is vaccines and boosters have reduced the severity of COVID-19. This fall, it is anticipated that a booster designed to help fight off the variant strains should be available in time for what health care providers anticipate will be another back-to-school surge.

"It will likely become part of our seasonal viral milieu in the fall and winter," said Dr. Stenehjem.

Dr. Stenehjem said more Utahns who have been vaccinated need to get their booster shots.

"These are very safe vaccines. New data is showing the safety in 5 to 11 year-olds, incredibly safe as well. I hope the public will continue to hear these messages these are safe vaccines and they are effective," he said.

The Utah Department of Health reported 6,870 new cases during the previous week on Thursday, with an additional 15 deaths and 267 new hospitalizations. Utah has now passed the one million mark in overall cases since the pandemic began in early 2020. In all, there have been 1,004,426 confirmed cases reported in the state.

But that is most definitely an under-count as more people use at home tests that aren't reported to Utah's Department of Health & Human Services.

There are currently 242 people hospitalized with COVID-19, with 40 of those patients in an ICU. The rolling 7-day average of positive COVID tests is now at 981 a day, with a 36.1% person-to-person 7-day average positivity rate.