With Utah’s COVID-19 cases remaining at high levels and the Intermountain West remaining the nation’s hot spot for the virus, an infectious disease doctor with the region’s largest health care provider warned on Friday that the state may face another rough winter. goes.
“We’re not currently in a good place to head into the winter months,” said Dr. Brandon Webb at an Intermountain Healthcare virtual press conference, because that’s already when “we expect to have higher rates, and especially with the going into the holidays, we’re starting in a place that doesn’t give us much confidence.”
Utah and four other western states, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, continue to average more than 50 new COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 residents, according to data collected by the Mayo Clinic. Only three other rural states, Alaska, Minnesota and North Dakota, are equally affected.
Utah’s rate of community transmission of the virus is high but stable, Webb said, unlike other states that saw much higher increases, such as Idaho, where a huge spike earlier this fall led to rationed health care. Earlier this week, Governor Spencer Cox described Idaho’s case as “bonkers” compared to Utah’s.
Hospitals in Idaho saw significant overcrowding, something Webb said Utah has “got lucky” to manage to some extent, because the high case count hasn’t fluctuated quite as dramatically. But the doctor said what is happening in the region is being closely watched.
Colorado, he said, is “seeing a significant uptick” and is implementing measures to avoid overwhelming that state’s health care system, such as going beyond federal recommendations limiting booster shots of the vaccine so all adults can get the extra dose. .
The dynamics of transmission are difficult to predict, Webb said, “but looking at what’s going on in communities with similar vaccination rates, with similar or contrasting types of social precautions and cultural compliance is very helpful to us as we continue to plan our public health response here in Utah.”
Utah’s health care resources are already saturated with COVID-19 patients, Webb said, “no room for error. So we’re thankful we haven’t gone up as much as some other states, but at the same time, our steady state is still in the last few weeks.” getting too high to be comfortable.”
On Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported 3,842 new COVID-19 cases and 22 deaths from the virus in the state since Wednesday. The new numbers over the Veterans Day holiday put the seven-day moving average for cases at 1,568 per day.
That affects the capacity of hospitals in Utah to care for all patients, Webb said, while respiratory diseases such as respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, are emerging earlier than expected, especially among young people.
Admission numbers at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital are already at their highest winter volume, he said.
It’s too early to say whether opening up coronavirus vaccinations to children ages 5 to 11 last week will make a difference in Utah’s transmission rates, Webb said, although that’s expected. Cases in children ages 5 to 10 are currently higher in Utah than at the peak of the pandemic last January.
Reducing that high level of transmission in young children is “incredibly important” for boosting the general population’s immunity, he said, noting projections from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting vaccination of 5 – up to 11-year-olds over 600,000 could occur. hospital admissions in the next six months.
The immunity that comes from being infected with COVID-19 is not yet recognized as part of US public health policy regarding the virus, Webb said, but may be catching up as more is learned. He said Switzerland considers immunity to infection a temporary equivalent of vaccination.
“The science suggests that both are important,” said Webb, who described the immunity to both an infection and the vaccine as natural. The people with the strongest and longest-lasting immunity, he said, are those who were vaccinated with at least one dose after having had COVID-19.
Asked if he was surprised where Utah is now as the second winter of the pandemic approaches, Webb suggested there might be too much optimism about wiping out the virus once vaccines became widely available earlier this year.
“I think we were a bit over-enthusiastic when the initial vaccination coverage was announced. To be fair, those vaccines initially performed so much better than we expected they would, that we may have prematurely shifted the paradigm to talk about the pandemic being over,” he said.
That led to the withdrawal of mask mandates and other preventive measures to slow the spread of the virus, and then the highly contagious delta strain hit in the summer, leading to a surge in cases that continue today.
“We quickly realized that while the vaccines are still effective, they are declining. We have certainly learned that the duration of vaccination immunity is not as durable as we thought it could be. So I think there’s a widespread disappointment because we’ve had to change as a community,” the doctor said.
Rather than return to the belief that “we’re done, we’ve arrived, we’ve made it,” Utahns need to be more realistic, Webb said, as new ways of dealing with the virus emerge, such as antiviral drugs. treatments in pill form, including one that could be approved later this month.
Even with new tools to fight COVID-19, Utahns still need to take personal responsibility for not exposing others to the virus, the doctor said. “Our strategy needs to be complementary and multifaceted to get us through this winter season where I think we can be more rational about our expectations,” Webb said.