Omicron could soon surpass delta as dominant strain, bring ‘fifth wave’ of cases, leading Utah doctor says

Since early October, Utah is averaging about 10 deaths a day due to COVID-19.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Syringes for Utah County residents to get their COVID-19 vaccinations in a former Shopko store in Spanish Fork, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.

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The Utah Department of Health on Friday announced seven more COVID-19 deaths, bringing the state’s death toll since the pandemic began to 3,702.

The state crossed the 3,000-deaths threshold on Oct. 9, when it reached 3,002 deaths. There have been 700 deaths reported since then — an average of about 10 a day.

The Health Department on Friday also reported 1,017 new coronavirus cases in the past day. The rolling seven-day average for new cases stands at 1,006 per day.

But that could soon change. A leading Utah doctor warned Friday that the omicron variant of the coronavirus is likely to bring a “fifth wave” of new coronavirus cases in the coming weeks.

”In some ways, it’s piggybacking on a fourth wave that never receded completely,” Dr. Brandon Webb, infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said during a COVID-19 community briefing over Facebook Live.

The ‘Houdini’ of variants

The omicron variant is more transmissible, Webb said, calling it the “Houdini of COVID variants” because it can escape the body’s immune responses — gained either through prior infection or the first doses of the vaccine — and produce more “breakthrough” cases.

Even so, he said, omicron is like delta in that it produces more severe illness in those who have not been vaccinated. And in the coming weeks, it could soon surpass delta as the dominant variant of COVID-19.

”If you have not yet been vaccinated, with omicron at our doorstep, I strongly encourage you to be vaccinated,” Webb said Friday. “If you’ve had prior infection, and were relying on that for protecting you against further strains, that no longer applies to the omicron variant.”

He also strongly encouraged those who have been vaccinated to get a booster dose.

With Christmas just over a week away, Webb advised that people exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness should stay home and avoid gatherings with loved ones. He also recommended getting tested early for the coronavirus, because cold and flu symptoms overlap with symptoms of COVID-19.

Healthy holiday revelers should still avoid large indoor groups, maintain social distancing, and wear masks in crowded indoor settings, Webb said. “The tools in the toolbox that have been effective [before] remain effective against omicron,” he said.

ICUs remains near capacity

The number of children getting vaccinated continues to climb — 85,916 children ages 5-11 have gotten at least one dose since they became eligible. That’s 23.6% of kids that age in Utah, according to the Health Department. And 50,190 of those kids have been fully vaccinated — 13.8% of that age group.

Intensive care units in the state remain near capacity. UDOH reported Friday that 93.5% of all ICU beds in Utah and 97.1% of ICU beds in larger medical centers in the state are occupied. (Hospitals consider any figure over 85% to be functionally full.) Of all ICU patients, 37.6% are being treated for COVID-19.

Vaccine doses administered in the past day/total doses administered • 13,240 / 4,403,822.

Number of Utahns fully vaccinated • 1,875,418 — 57.3% of Utah’s total population. That is an increase of 2,140 in the past day.

Cases reported in the past day • 1,017.

Cases among school-age children • Kids in grades K-12 accounted for 157 of the new cases announced Wednesday — 15.4% of the total. There were 89 cases reported in children aged 5-10; 26 cases in children 11-13; and 42 cases in children 14-18.

Tests reported in past day • 9,301 people were tested for the first time. A total of 17.871 people were tested.

Deaths reported in past day • Seven.

There were three deaths in Salt Lake County — a woman between the ages of 45-64, and two men 85 or older.

Davis County reported two deaths — a man and a woman 65-84. There were also two deaths in Utah County — a man and a woman 45-64.

Hospitalizations reported in the past day • 511. That is four more than reported on Thursday. Of those currently hospitalized, 196 are in intensive care, three more than reported on Thursday.

Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 10.9% in the past day. That is lower than the seven-day average of 13.2%.

The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Friday’s rate was 5.7%, lower than the seven-day average of 9.1%.

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

Risk ratios • In the past four weeks, unvaccinated Utahns were 15.7 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than vaccinated people, according to a Utah Department of Health analysis. The unvaccinated also were 9.7 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 3.7 times more likely to test positive for the coronavirus.

Totals to date • 617,697 cases; 3,704 deaths; 26,941 hospitalizations; 4,121,577 people tested.