About 30% of Utahns now have immunity to the coronavirus, expert estimates

The state reports 549 new cases of COVID-19 and five more deaths.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tracy Wootton administers a Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccination to Christy Session, at TOSH - The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday that Utahns age 50 and older can start making appointments to get their COVID-19 vaccinations this coming Monday, Cox said younger adult Utahns with certain health conditions such as diabetes, Type 1 or Type 2, obesity with a BMI index of 30 or higher, and anyone with chronic kidney disease will also be eligible.

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An infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare estimates that almost a third of Utahns have immunity to the COVID-19 virus, but he warns that this is not the time to ease up too rapidly on mask wearing and other precautions.

Dr. Brandon Webb said that between the more than half a million Utahns who have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and the “thousands of others” who have contracted and recovered from COVID-19, “It’s reasonable to estimate that our current herd immunity ... is somewhere around 30%, perhaps a little bit more.”

That, he said, “is terrific. And we’re expecting to see that number continue to build. But it’s not enough yet for us to fully pass the baton.”

The “wisest course of action” is to “do a staged reopening” of the state, he said, cautioning against lifting restrictions and tossing aside face masks too quickly.

”We’re still in a race between vaccination and variants,” Webb said. “It’s important to remember that the virus is just a machine … whose sole purpose is to survive by infecting others. And it will continue to do that as long as there are susceptible individuals in the population. It doesn’t sleep, doesn’t care about politics. It doesn’t care that we’re all so tired of these precautions.”

Only when the number of Utahns who have been vaccinated grows will the state “be able to safely pass the baton from the things that we’re doing to our immunity. And right now, we’re not there yet,” he said.

“So it is important,” Webb said, “that we continue to follow that the social restrictions and precautions that have been laid out by the Department of Health and by the governor’s office.”

[Read more: Why does Utah rank as the one of slowest states at vaccinating residents against COVID-19?]

On Friday, for the 15th day in a row, the Utah Department of Health reported fewer than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the state. The average number per day since Feb. 18 is 634.

The state also reported five more deaths, one of which occurred before Feb. 12 and was only recently identified as coronavirus-related.

Vaccine doses administered in past day/total doses administered • 31,411 / 816,934.

Utahns fully vaccinated • 291,003.

Cases reported in past day • 549.

Deaths reported in past day • Five.

Cache County reported two deaths — a man and a woman between the ages of 65 and 84.

Three other counties each reported one death, all in the 65 to 84 age range: a man in Salt Lake County and women from Utah and Weber counties.

Hospitalizations reported in past day • 203. That’s the same as on Thursday. Of those currently hospitalized, 85 are in intensive care units — two fewer than Thursday.

Tests reported in past day • 6,601 people were tested for the first time. A total of 16,934 people were tested.

[Read more: Exclusive: TestUtah’s COVID-19 testing costs the state more than other sites, analysis shows]

Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 8.3%. That’s lower than the seven-day average of 9.8%.

Its new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Friday’s rate is now at 3.2%, lower than the seven-day average of 4.6%.

[Read more: Utah is changing how it measures the rate of positive COVID-19 tests. Here’s what that means.]

Totals to date • 373,868 cases; 1,970 deaths; 14,841 hospitalizations; 2,236,642 people tested.

On Friday, University of Utah Health announced it was opening up registration for COVID-19 vaccinations to any U. patient age 50 or older, following new eligibility guidelines laid out Thursday by Gov. Spencer Cox.

Previously, U. Health was going through its electronic records and inviting its existing patients who were eligible to get the vaccine to make an appointment.

According to Kavish Choudhary, U. Health’s senior director of pharmacy, the U.’s online registration is set to be updated Friday to allow patients in the eligible groups to sign up.

Eligible groups added Thursday include adults over 50, and people 16 and up with diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or a body mass index over 30. Those groups join a list that includes health care workers, teachers, first responders, people with certain other underlying conditions, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities.

Choudhury said that, starting Monday, three U. clinics — in Sugar House, Farmington and South Jordan — will have the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine available. The two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be available at University of Utah Hospital and the U.’s Redwood Health Center.

“If you have an opportunity to get an appointment, don’t delay, and get your shot,” Choudhury said.

“Anecdotally, “ Webb said, “… it certainly seems like there’s a lot of excitement” about the 50-plus announcement. “That represents a very large fraction of our population. And it encompasses a group of individuals who, again, by and large, have been taking more precautions than others because they’re at a higher risk. ... This is a great new development as we continue to accelerate our vaccine deployment.”

Still, he cautioned, “It’s less likely that the vaccine will be fully effective in some individuals” with weaker immune systems. “Not everyone should view the vaccine as a ticket to full freedom yet,” he said, “while we still have fairly high community transmission.”

– Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.