Utah faces a grim ‘viral winter’ with flu in addition to COVID-19

An infectious disease expert is urging Utahns to get vaccinated for both.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Brandon Webb, chair of Intermountain Healthcare’s COVID-19 Therapeutics team and Dr. Daanish Hoda, a hematology expert and director of the Intermountain Hematologic Malignacy Department, April 21, 2020.

Utah is facing a viral winter “the likes of which we haven’t seen before” because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the onset of cold and flu season, according to an infectious diseases physician for Intermountain Healthcare.

“The last thing we can afford is to have significant numbers of patients who are ill with influenza and a high volume of COVID and RSV and others,” Brandon Webb, the physician, said. “These are all preventable.”

Webb encouraged Utahns to get vaccinated, both for COVID-19 and for the flu. He noted that the state last winter saw historically low rates of influenza and other severe respiratory issues unrelated to COVID-19. At the time, residents were wearing masks, social distancing and taking other precautions.

“I think it’s clear that, as a whole, we’re not practicing the same level of hygiene and prevention measures that we did last season,” Webb said, later adding that, “Unless something changes, we don’t expect to enjoy the same benefit this season.”

He encouraged people to continue wearing masks and taking proper precautions — including in Utah’s schools, where masking allowed for more days of in-person learning last year than most states saw, Webb said.

“We need to be very careful not to abandon tools in our toolbox that have been very effective in the past,” Webb said.

This year, COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations among school-age children are significantly higher than they were this time last year. Webb said those reported cases may only be the tip of the iceberg, because there’s a “significant degree” of under-testing in that population, which makes the data “very difficult to assess.”

According to state data, 35% of Utah’s cases are among people under the age of 25. Younger people tend to be more asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic, but still remain “very capable of spreading it to higher risk individuals,” Webb said. “Especially the individuals who are unvaccinated and in that middle age group with some medical comorbidities.”

Intermountain Healthcare ICUs are between 97-100% full, Webb said. Data shows that statewide, about 52% of all ICU patients are non-COVID patients, which the onset of flu season threatens to compound.

“We, with confidence, strongly endorse vaccination as the single most effective method and most sustainable method for preventing both severe disease [and] the emergence of variants — for protecting those around us, and for transitioning into a normal that’s closer to the normal that we’d all like to get to,” Webb said.