As omicron variant of COVID-19 grabs attention, a doctor warns that delta is still hitting Utah hard

‘Get vaccinated,’ Intermountain’s Dr. Eddie Stenehjem tells Utahns, as another potential post-Thanksgiving surge looms.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Laura Kennedy administers a COVID-19 shot at Salt Lake City's Rose Park Elementary on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

As information trickles in about the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, a leading Utah doctor is reminding people that the delta variant is still a deadly problem here.

“Right now in Utah, omicron is not affecting us. Delta is affecting us,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said Tuesday during a COVID-19 briefing over Facebook Live.

Stenehjem noted that the omicron variant was first detected only six days earlier, last Wednesday, in South Africa — and has yet to be reported in the United States.

Meanwhile, Stenehjem added, intensive care units at Intermountain’s hospitals are at 100% capacity — and the state’s health department reported Tuesday that another 20 Utahns have died from COVID-19.

“And we haven’t felt the impact of the Thanksgiving Day holiday,” Stenehjem added. “So there’s a feeling of dread [among hospital staffs] of what’s to come, when we’re this busy and we’re now just coming off of a really significant holiday … which could certainly increase transmission and increase hospitalization.”

Going by past holidays, Stenehjem said, the first people who caught the virus during Thanksgiving will likely go in for tests by the middle of this week — and, if they’re sick, will start showing up in hospitals by the weekend.

Stenehjem repeated a message that many health officials have said over the last few months: “If you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you’ve had a previous infection and you haven’t been vaccinated, the time to get vaccinated is now. And if you’ve been vaccinated, ensure that you get your booster dose when appropriate.”

The case counts in hospitals, Stenehjem said, show that the vast majority of those being treated for COVID-19 were not fully vaccinated. Of the 282 COVID-19 patients in Intermountain’s 24 hospitals on Monday, 240 of them — 85% — were not fully vaccinated. Similarly, 87% of the ICU patients with COVID-19 (103 out of 119) and 85% of COVID-19 patients on a ventilator (53 out of 62) were not fully vaccinated, according to Intermountain’s count.

(Intermountain Healthcare) A graphic created by Intermountain Healthcare shows the number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital system's beds on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021 — and how the vast majority of those patients were not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 when they got sick.

In addition to warding off the delta variant, Stenehjem said, vaccination helps keep new variants from starting.

“We’re going to have large-scale transmission somewhere in the globe. If we’re having large-scale transmission, we’re going to see variants develop,” Stenehjem said. “Vaccination is our way to prevent the ongoing development of variants.”

Information on the omicron variant, Stenehjem said, is still incomplete. Early data from South Africa “seems to be tracking very similarly to delta” in terms of hospitalization, he said, but there’s not enough data to know for sure.

“We know very little in terms of what are going to be the consequences of this variant,” he said. “So, I think, now’s the time for us to really dig in, learn about it, try to understand what these mutations mean, if anything — and see how this is really going to impact us here in the U.S. and in the state of Utah.”