Ahead of holiday gatherings, ‘omicron is here,’ Utah virologist warns

Early data shows COVID-19 vaccine boosters offer increased protection against the new variant.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A sign encourages face masks in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021.

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Ahead of the buzz of holiday travel, which is expected to hit pre-pandemic levels at Salt Lake City International Airport this month, a Utah virologist on Tuesday expressed concern about the recently surging omicron variant of the coronavirus.

”Omicron is here, and it’s rising in frequency rapidly,” Stephen Goldstein, the virologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Monday that the omicron variant had surpassed delta as the most dominant strain of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for an estimated 73.2% of all COVID-19 cases last week.

In a region including Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota, modeled projections released Monday estimated that omicron accounted for about 62% of new coronavirus cases.

Omicron’s emerging prevalence in Utah continues to be studied. According to Utah Department of Health spokesperson Charla Haley, a genome-sequencing test being performed at Intermountain Healthcare has found an absence of a particular protein — seen as an indicator of the omicron variant — in 30% of state tests performed in the last few weeks. 

Using the same sequencing test, the Utah Public Health Lab has also found that protein missing in 11 out of 29 COVID-positive samples, or 37.9%, Haley said. She added that the lab would have to fully sequence all 11 to be sure whether or not the samples contain the omicron variant. So far, the state lab has positively identified seven omicron cases in the state, Haley said.

Goldstein said early data from South Africa indicates that the protection rate offered by current COVID-19 vaccines against any symptoms, mild to severe, has dropped to around 35% — compared with 65% to 70% effectiveness against other variants.

But that protection rate jumps back up to 70% to 75% for people who got their third booster dose of the Pfizer or Moderna versions of the vaccine.

Protection against severe disease — something strong enough to land a person in the hospital — remains robust, around 75% effectiveness, down from the 95% effectiveness that vaccines held against the delta variant, Goldstein said.

Federal COVID-19 plan

President Joe Biden on Tuesday afternoon announced updates to his administration’s winter COVID-19 plan. Under the plan, the Associated Press reported, the federal government would purchase 500 million rapid tests for the coronavirus and ship them free to Americans starting in January. People will be able use a new website to order the tests, which will then be sent by U.S. mail at no charge, the White House said.

Biden’s plan to distribute 500 million free tests is a good start, Goldstein said. “We just need more of them. We need them in stores and in pharmacies, and not empty shelves.”

Goldstein also said he would like to see the federal government do something similar “to get people reliable, high-quality masks that they can use.” Many of the KN95 masks available online are fake, Goldstein noted.

Biden’s plan also called for lending more support to hospitals and redoubling vaccination and booster efforts.

New cases in Utah

On Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 811 new coronavirus cases in the past day. The rolling seven-day average of new cases stands at 964, the lowest it’s been since Aug. 16.

The Health Department on Tuesday also reported 21 more COVID-19 deaths. A third of those were people between the ages of 45-64.

Nine of the deaths reported Tuesday occurred before Dec. 1 and were only recently confirmed to have been caused by the coronavirus after further testing.

The number of children getting vaccinated continues to climb: 88,892 children ages 5-11 have gotten at least one dose since they became eligible. That’s 24.4% of kids that age in Utah, according to the Health Department. And 54,554 of those kids have been fully vaccinated — 15% of that age group.

Intensive care units in the state remain near capacity. UDOH reported Tuesday that 93.2% of all ICU beds in Utah and 96.3% 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, 37.9% are being treated for COVID-19.

Vaccine doses administered in the past day/total doses administered • 14,003 / 4,448,663.

Number of Utahns fully vaccinated • 1,880,852 — 57.6% of Utah’s total population. That is an increase of 2,660 in the past day.

Cases reported in the past day • 811.

Cases among school-age children • Kids in grades K-12 accounted for 93 of the new cases announced Monday — 11.5% of the total. There were 45 cases reported in children aged 5-10; 22 cases in children 11-13; and 26 cases in children 14-18.

Tests reported in past day • 7,393 people were tested for the first time. A total of 14,694 people were tested.

Deaths reported in past day • 21.

There were five deaths in Utah County — two men and a woman between the ages of 45-64, and a man and a woman 65-84.

Salt Lake County reported three deaths — a man and a woman 45-65, and a woman 85 or older. There were also three deaths in Washington County — a man and two women 65-84. And there were three deaths in Weber County — a man and a woman 65-84, and a woman 85 or older.

Davis County reported two deaths — both men 65-84. There were also two deaths in Box Elder County — a man and a woman 45-64. And there were two deaths in Tooele County — both women 65-84.

Cache County reported the death of a woman 65-84.

Hospitalizations reported in the past day • 444. That is 12 fewer than reported on Monday. Of those currently hospitalized, 182 are in intensive care — 10 fewer than reported on Monday.

Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 11% in the past day. That is lower than the seven-day average of 11.9%.

The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Monday’s rate was 5.5%, lower than the seven-day average of 8.2%.

[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 15.6 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 • 621,008 cases; 3,738 deaths; 27,093 hospitalizations; 4,153,440 people tested.