Utah doctor urges people to limit New Year’s Eve celebrations as omicron spreads

“This is not a great time to be gathering in large groups,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem said Thursday.

A leading Utah doctor on Thursday offered this New Year’s Eve advice: Keep the celebrations small.

The advice came as coronavirus case counts spiked in Utah this week amid the growing spread of the new omicron variant.

“This is not a great time to be gathering in large groups for New Year’s Eve,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said Thursday.

“If you want to safely gather for New Year’s Eve, it would be really important for people to be tested, to determine whether or not they have COVID-19,” Stenehjem continued. “Or just defer that large gathering until a later date.”

The Utah Department of Health on Wednesday reported a whopping 3,303 new coronavirus cases — 82% more than reported the previous day. On Thursday, UDOH reported even more new cases — 3,563 total, the most reported in a single day since Jan. 7.

A combination of factors led to that large number of cases, Stenehjem said. There was a backlog of testing because of the Christmas holiday, he said, and Christmas also meant many people were gathering, potentially spreading the virus to friends and family.

On Christmas Eve, Utah also crossed over a threshold that indicates half of the state’s COVID-19 cases could be attributed to the more contagious omicron variant, Stenehjem said,

At the same time, the state’s hospitals saw a slight decrease in hospitalizations for COVID-19 — with intensive care units at 93% capacity, down from 99% capacity a week earlier. “That’s not to say 93% capacity is good,” Stenehjem said, noting that hospitals consider anything over 85% to be functionally full.

But it’s an improvement, he said, noting it will take about a week to determine whether that dip will hold as omicron-driven case counts go up.

Evidence from Europe and South Africa shows signs of hope that the omicron variant, though more contagious, may result in a milder illness than other strains of the coronavirus, Stenehjem said. He pointed to the United Kingdom, Germany, Norway and South Africa, where — even as case counts spiked — the level of hospitalizations and deaths rose less sharply or even stayed flat.

Still, even if omicron cases translate to fewer hospitalizations than the delta variant, Stenehjem said “the sheer numbers infected” alone can “really stress our health care system.”

Stenehjem’s recommendation for people venturing out on New Year’s Eve — and getting ready to return to school next week — is to use the tried-and-true public health measures introduced in earlier phases of the pandemic: Wear a well-fitting mask, open windows to increase ventilation and keep your distance from others as much as you can. “And really double down on those efforts,” he said.

Scaling back on New Year’s Eve may be easier said than done, particularly in downtown Salt Lake City. The annual “Last Hurrah” event is set for The Gateway on Friday night. The Utah Jazz also are playing host to the Minnesota Timberwolves at Vivint Smart Home Arena. And the touring production of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” is in its first week at the Eccles Theater.

Many area bars and concert venues also are planning various shows and parties to ring in 2022.