5 things you should know about COVID-19 in Utah right now

As recommendations change, here is what Utah experts want you to know.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cars wait in line for COVID-19 testing in Herriman, Monday, Jan. 03, 2022.

Ask Utah experts and health officials how best to avoid the coronavirus amid a recent surge in cases, and their answers seem contradictory.

Students who have been exposed to COVID-19 can still report to classrooms. But one University of Utah Health doctor recommended against dine-in meals at restaurants, for now.

Officials also encourage Utahns to wear masks in public. But not all masks are effective as others against the omicron variant.

As recommendations change, here is what experts interviewed by The Salt Lake Tribune want you to know:

Current mask guidance

Any mask is better than no mask, according to Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious diseases physician with University of Utah Health.

“If you’re outside and you’re in a group, a cloth mask is probably going to be sufficient,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said. “But if you’re going to be indoors and there’s going to be a number of people there, cloth masks probably aren’t going to be sufficient in terms of protecting you from omicron.”

Any mask you wear should fit well, sitting snugly on your face with no gaps, Spivak and Stenehjem said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidance on where to find masks and how to wear them properly, advising that an N95 mask offers the most filtration.

But practically speaking, Stenehjem noted that not everybody is going to to be able to get hold of an N95, and “not everybody’s going to be able to tolerate an N95.”

“They’re really tight-fitting, and they’re hard to wear for prolonged periods of time,” Stenehjem continued. “And so I think the biggest focus should be on a well-fitted, decently ventilated mask.”

Dr. Leisha Nolen, a state epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health, also noted that it is important that N95 masks remain available for health care workers.

“There are different levels of masks, and it’s sort of, the higher you can get, the better protection you have,” Nolen said.

That could be a surgical mask with a cloth mask on top of it, Stenehjem said — surgical masks offer adequate filtration, and cloth masks tend to fit more snugly.

A KN95 is also a good option, Nolen said, though Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp reiterated that “any mask you have available and are willing to wear consistently and properly is better than no mask.”

What to do if you test positive

Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should isolate at home for at least five days after being tested, even if you don’t have symptoms and even if your symptoms start to subside.

That’s according to new guidelines released Monday by the Utah Department of Health, which followed recently updated guidelines from the CDC.

After those initial five days, you can leave home if your symptoms have improved and you have not had a fever — without medicine — for at least 24 hours. But wear a mask around others for another five days after isolating at home, the guidance states.

We know, even with the previous variants, sometimes there were a few days after people’s symptoms went away, and they still could infect others,” Nolen, the state epidemiologist, said.

If you still have a fever or other symptoms after those initial five days of isolation, you should stay home longer, Spivak said.

What to do if you are exposed to COVID-19

Anyone who has received confirmation that they were exposed to someone with COVID-19 should get tested five days later, according to the Utah Department of Public Health.

That’s because 90% of infections will show up by then, Rupp, with the Salt Lake County Health Department, said.

Whether or not you should quarantine in the meantime depends on one’s age and vaccination status, according to the Utah Department of Health.

For instance, recently vaccinated or boosted adults do not need to quarantine following exposure, the Health Department advises. That includes adults 18 or older who either:

  • Received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine within the last two months.

  • Received their initial two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine within the last six months.

  • Received a booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Still, such adults should wear a mask for at least 10 days following the point of exposure, the Health Department advises.

The same guidance is recommended for anyone younger than 18 who has received two doses of Pfizer vaccine since becoming eligible.

People of all ages who are either unvaccinated, have not recently been vaccinated or have not received a booster dose should quarantine at home for five days following exposure. After, they can end their quarantine if they don’t have any symptoms, but should wear a mask around others for another five days.

“Students may attend school so long as they wear a mask at school for the 10 days after their exposure,” according to the Health Department.

[Read more: Will Utah see a surge of COVID-19 cases in schools?]

Find where to get tested at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-covid-19-testing-locations.

Find where to get vaccinated at coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine-distribution.

What to do if you recently traveled

If you traveled recently and are experiencing any upper respiratory symptoms, including a sniffle, sore throat or dry cough, “You need to get tested and you need to assume that you have COVID-19,” Stenehjem said.

He urged anyone with symptoms to quarantine themselves until they can get tested for the coronavirus, which is “the most dominant viral infection circulating in our communities right now.”

Even if you did not travel, Spivak recommended that people who attended large holiday gatherings or New Year’s Eve celebrations should “lay low” for about five to seven days, especially if attendees were not masked or not vaccinated.

In the meantime, work from home if possible and minimize any socializing, she said. Going to the grocery store or running errands is OK, but wear a mask.

“We know there’s so much transmission right now that it’s likely even people who are cautious have been exposed,” Nolen said. “Being in an airport and an airplane, it’s a fairly high likelihood you’ve been near people who are positive.”

Going out in public

Stenehjem said warnings about high- and moderate-risk activities, including going out to eat, apply now more than ever “because of the sheer amount of COVID-19 in our communities.”

“If you are out dining in a crowded restaurant where there are people without masks, there’s going to be high transmission of COVID, just plain and simple,” he continued. “There’s not enough ventilation. There’s too many people.”

Utahns over the next few weeks should consider evaluating not only their personal risk, but also the risk of transmitting COVID-19 to susceptible and high-risk individuals, he said.

“If you are fully vaccinated and boosted and healthy, you may perceive your risk differently than somebody who is a kidney transplant patient. … If you get this infection, who are you going to transmit it to?” Stenehjem said. “Do you have an immunocompromised child or an elderly parent that lives with you? That risk is different.”

With the omicron variant, Spivak said being vaccinated “isn’t as much of a guarantee anymore” that you won’t contract the coronavirus. Booster shots offer more protection, she said, but there are still breakthrough cases.

If Utah’s recent surge replicates what experts saw in South Africa, it will hopefully subside “fairly quickly,” Spivak said. But over the next month or so, Spivak recommends avoiding indoor settings, such as restaurants, as much as possible.

“If you are sick or if you have been exposed, don’t go to those places where you might expose other people,” Nolen added.