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Here’s what Utah’s epidemiologist predicts about COVID, omicron and ‘flurona’

The state is in for “a few really bad weeks,” Dr. Leisha Nolen expects.

(Screenshot) Dr. Leisha Nolen, Utah's state epidemiologist, discusses the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Utah over Zoom on Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.

After Utah reported a record-high number of COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen predicted the state is “going to have a few really bad weeks here, if not another month or two,” before the spread of the virus begins to subside.

“All the other countries that are being hit, you can see this really dramatic rise, and many of them are starting to slow,” Nolen said, answering questions from reporters in a news conference over Zoom.

While illnesses from the rising omicron variant are generally milder than cases caused by previous variants, Nolen said, the challenge for Utah is that when lots of people are becoming infected, “we’re going to still have a lot of hospitalizations.”

And with hospitals in the Beehive State already overwhelmed, adding omicron “on top of that is really, really a disaster,” she said.

As of Thursday, 94.6% of all ICU beds in Utah, and 96.4% of ICU beds in larger medical centers throughout the state, are occupied, the health department reported, while announcing nearly 9,000 new cases. (Hospitals consider any figure over 85% to be functionally full.) Of all ICU patients, 38.1% are being treated for COVID-19.

On Thursday morning, leaders from several Utah hospitals warned in a joint online news conference that the state’s supply of monoclonal antibodies and oral antiviral treatments are running low, testing centers are overwhelmed and another child in the state has died of the coronavirus.

For people who haven’t been vaccinated or received a booster shot, Nolen said, “there’s still a significant concern that they could get sick, and the hospitals might not be able to take care of everyone.”

Here are other questions answered by Nolen.

What about deaths from omicron?

“This is something we’re going to have to watch and see,” Nolen said. In other places, there are fewer people being admitted to intensive care units from the variant, she said, and “hopefully that translates into less death.”

But, she added, health officials are worried that people with underlying conditions who haven’t received the vaccine could be at risk. “I don’t want to take chances,” Nolen said, “and I really just encourage everybody to do all they can to protect themselves.”

Should Utahns avoid large public events for the next few weeks?

The omicron variant “is exceptionally transmissible,” Nolen said, more so than delta. “With so much of our population already affected, it’s guaranteed people” at large events “will be infected,” she said.

“I really encourage people to think about, can they reschedule things?” Nolen said. “Can they delay the events that they have planned? Maybe decide not to attend a mass gathering.”

If that’s not possible, the next best option is to get vaccinated, receive a booster and wear a mask, she said.

Should extracurricular school activities and sports be canceled?

“At this time, we don’t have any recommendation like that,” Nolen said, but “we certainly are trying to work with different schools” to keep students and staff safe.

“We’re hearing from other states that they are seeing more children hospitalizations than they have at any other time during the pandemic,” she said. “... We have a very young state here in Utah, so that’s really concerning.”

Nolen encouraged parents to get their children vaccinated and boosted, if they are eligible, and to send them to school wearing masks. “We are going to see a spread of omicron in schools,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention late Wednesday recommended that all children between the ages of 12 and 17 receive a booster dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Previously, the CDC had advised that children 16-17 may get a booster.

Earlier this week, the CDC also recommended that immunocompromised children between the ages of 5 and 11 receive a third primary dose of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as soon as 28 days after their second shot.

People of all ages who received a second Pfizer dose also now can receive a booster within five months, instead of six, the CDC announced Tuesday. The booster window for those who received the Johnson & Johnson or Moderna vaccine hasn’t changed, remaining at two and six months, respectively.

“I encourage all Utahns to get a boost as soon as they are eligible and parents should take advantage of this expanded recommendation to protect their kids,” Nolen said in a statement Thursday.

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

Is Utah concerned about a shortage of tests, which other states are experiencing?

Nolen said her department is “keeping track of our supplies really closely.” With so many people seeking tests lately, “it is super hard ... to make sure we have all the tests on hand.”

“We’ve ordered many, many additional tests,” which will hopefully arrive Friday, she said, but supply chain issues could come into play.

“For now, we have what we need, but we are certainly keeping an eye on it,” Nolen said.

Do you have concerns about “flurona” and a new variant?

(With the newly dubbed “flurona,” people are sick with both coronavirus and influenza at the same time. And there’s been a new variant recently found in France.)

Having COVID-19 and the flu at the same time can make people “very ill,” Nolen said. With “both of these viruses circulating this year, it’s really a concern,” she said.

Nolen said the new variant in France is “something we want to keep an eye on. ... There’s going to be variants occurring all the time,” she said, because “this virus mutates.”

Why did Utah change its guidance on isolation after a positive test?

The Utah Department of Health now recommends that people who test positive for COVID-19 isolate for five days, rather than 10. Is that because they are more infectious in those first five days?

“The information we’ve been given from the CDC does suggest that people, specifically with omicron, develop their symptoms earlier and tend to get over their infection earlier,” Nolen said.

“While the risk is decreased,” though, she said, “I don’t think it’s zero.”

The CDC strongly recommends that people wear a mask for another five days after ending isolation, Nolen said. And the five-day isolation period is a minimum, she said. People who still have symptoms after that time should continue to stay away from other people.

California added a testing requirement for people to end isolation after five days. Will Utah do that?

“Our guidance is going to be that we highly encourage people to get tested to come out of isolation,” Nolen said, “however, we realize that it is very hard to get testing right now. And so we are not going to require that.”

What do you say to people who think they don’t need a vaccine or booster shot during omicron?

“There’s no such thing as a perfect vaccine, so people can get breakthrough infections,” Nolen said. “... But we also know that these vaccines keep people from getting really ill.”

“We want to keep people out of the hospital” and the doctor’s office, “and we certainly want to keep them from dying,” she said. “So, these vaccines, you might get the illness, but you might just then have a cold for five days. To me, that’s a win.”

As of Wednesday, 670,500 people have received a booster shot, which amounts to 35.1% of adults in the state, according to Tom Hudachko, spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health.

“I think until now, a lot of people felt, ‘Ah, I got my two shots, or I got my one Johnson & Johnson, and I’m good,’” Nolen said. “...And that was generally true with delta. Even without a boost, you were fairly protected against delta.”

“Unfortunately, omicron is different,” she said, and is “able to get around that base level protection that the original shots gave.”

How reliable are at-home tests?

“Home tests are not perfect, but they are actually very good,” Nolen said. “... If you need to find out if you’re positive or not, it’s a good option,” especially with the high demand for testing right now.

“Certainly, if you have symptoms, we don’t care what your test says. We want you to stay home,” Nolen said. And if you do have symptoms, you should assume you have omicron, she said.

At-home tests are “very good at detecting and telling you” if you are positive for COVID-19, according to Nolen.

“If you’re negative, that’s where it’s a little less accurate,” she said, warning, “if it’s negative and you feel sick, don’t just then blow it off.”

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