SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah is making plans for the endemic phase of COVID-19.
A plan, drafted by Utah's Department of Health and shared with FOX 13, lays the groundwork for the eventuality of the virus becoming a regular — and hopefully smaller — part of our lives. But we've got to first get through this latest surge driven by the omicron variant.
"This is a plan we started working on," Governor Spencer Cox said in brief remarks to FOX 13 on Tuesday. "Of course, omicron suspended that work. We are completely focused on omicron. We encourage people to get vaccinated, get boosted. We know that’s the best way to prevent serious illness and disease. And it’s the best way to get into the endemic phase."
Under an endemic phase, COVID-19 is expected to still be here, but it's not overwhelming Utah's health care systems like it is now.
"In the traditional definition it’s something that’s a routine infection that will come along and it’s expected to be occurring at a base level in our population," state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said of endemic. "Whereas a pandemic is well beyond what we expect and it really overwhelms the resources."
COVID-19 testing will also not be maxed out or required en masse like it is now. Dr. Nolen also cautioned it's not like there's a switch and we go from "pandemic" to "endemic."
"There’s not going to be one day where 'Goodness, it’s pandemic yesterday and today we’re endemic,'" she said. "That just isn’t going to happen. It’s a gradual system change."
The state's plan also has some benchmarks to be considered endemic. For example, Utah must be in a COVID-19 case plateau or decline for 45 days and 70% of Utah's population must be in a low transmission area. Right now, only Utah's most sparsely populated county, Daggett County, is in the low transmission according to data from the Utah Coronavirus Task Force. The rest of the state is in high transmission for COVID-19.
And this is an evolving plan as the virus evolves.
"The reality is we have to see what is going to work with our partners, what is really going to be able to allow us to go about our normal life without having these infections disrupt huge amounts of our society," Dr. Nolen told FOX 13. "The numbers are useful as an idea, but they aren’t the end goal."
Some in the Utah State Legislature have certainly been pushing for an endemic phase to happen sooner. Last week, lawmakers voted to terminate mask mandates in Salt Lake and Summit counties, hoping that the omicron-driven surge will be the final gasp of COVID-19.
Because of the omicron variant, Utah's testing capacity is maxing out and hospitalizations are still very high. But there are signs the surge is beginning to wane. Dr. Nolen said Summit County appears to have turned.
"Salt Lake, I think, is about to turn, and some of the more rural areas of the state are still in that increase," she said.
Vaccinations and boosters are what people can do now to help get the state closer to an endemic phase, Dr. Nolen said. Right now, about 64% of eligible Utahns are considered fully vaccinated.
"If we have the whole population protected we can go to a different level," Dr. Nolen said. "It’s the unprotected people, unfortunately, who are ending up in the hospital and that’s what’s really overwhelming our system."