Utah reports 11,600 new COVID-19 cases, almost certainly undercounting actual infections

The number of hospitalizations and the percentage of positive tests remains staggeringly high.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A steady line of vehicles filled with multiple people waiting to be tested for COVID-19 are tended to by members of the Utah Department of Health at the Cannon Health Building, Dec. 27, 2021.

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Utah reported 11,601 new coronavirus cases on Friday — but skyrocketing hospitalizations and the staggeringly high rates of positive test results suggest cases are being drastically undercounted amid a statewide testing shortage.

State officials have urged Utahns not to get tested for COVID-19 unless they have health risks or are likely to expose vulnerable people.

Despite that, Friday brought the fifth-highest daily case count since the pandemic began, according to data from the Utah Department of Health. And it marked the ninth time in the past 10 days that a daily tally has exceeded 10,000 cases. (The record high before this month was 4,706 in December 2020.)

But with about 30% of all tests coming back positive during the past week, Utah is almost certainly undercounting its cases. The higher the percent positivity, the likelier it is that a large number of infected residents are not being tested and may be spreading the virus unwittingly.

State health officials have said the positivity rate would have to drop to 3% to suggest the virus is under control. Instead, 29% of the test results reported Friday were positive.

“It’s going to be hard for case counts to show when we’re up and over the peak until we start seeing hospitalizations decline, and test positivity decline,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician for Intermountain Healthcare. “That will be the true indicators of when we’re up and over the omicron hump.”

For the past week, Utah has averaged 10,818 new cases per day, up a bit from Thursday but still down slightly from Wednesday’s all-time high average of about 11,000. Before the highly contagious omicron variant of the virus swept through Utah this month, the highest that figure had ever been was 3,392, reported in November 2020.

Meanwhile, the state reported 11 deaths on Friday, bringing the total to 4,030 since the pandemic began.

Utah’s hospitals remained near capacity, and the number of currently hospitalized COVID-19 patients — 765 — is the highest it’s been since the pandemic began. Before this month, the highest hospitalization count on a single day was 606 patients in December 2020.

There are nearly as many COVID patients in intensive care units now (207) as there were then (213). But hospital staffing is tighter now than it was in 2020, Utah hospital administrators have said.

ICUs in the state’s larger, “referral” hospitals are now at 93% capacity — above the 85% threshold that hospital administrators have said is necessary to leave room for unpredictable staffing levels, new patients and availability of specialized equipment and personnel. Statewide, 89% of all ICU beds are filled.

In the past two weeks, the state has reported 147 children under age 15 were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Kids in grades K-12 accounted for 1,666 of the new cases announced Thursday — 14% of the total. There were 647 cases reported in children aged 5-10; 412 cases in children 11-13; and 607 cases in children 14-18.

The number of children getting vaccinated continues to climb: 112,192 children ages 5-11 have received at least one dose since they became eligible. That is 30.8% of kids that age in Utah, according to the health department. And 79,216 of those kids have been fully vaccinated — 21.7% of that age group.

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

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

Breakdown of updated figures

Vaccine doses administered in the past day/total doses administered • 7,270 / 4,746,063.

Number of Utahns fully vaccinated • 1,933,582 — 59.1% of Utah’s total population. That is an increase of 1,492 in the past day.

Cases reported in the past day • 11,601.

Vaccination status • Health officials do not immediately have or release the vaccination status of individuals who test positive, who are hospitalized, or who die. They do calculate the overall risk ratios of these outcomes depending on vaccination status, which is listed below.

Tests reported in the past day • 19,357 people were tested for the first time. A total of 40,523 people were tested.

Deaths reported in the past four days • 11. (The health department said three of the deaths occurred before Dec. 21 but did not specify which ones.)

There were five deaths in Salt Lake County — a woman between the ages of 25-44, a woman 45-64, a man and a woman 65-84, and a woman 85-plus.

Utah County reported four deaths — a man 45-65, a woman 65-84, and a man and a woman 85-plus.

A Sanpete County man 65-84 and a Washington County woman in the same age range also died.

Utahns currently hospitalized with COVID-19 • 765. That is nine more than reported on Thursday. Of those currently hospitalized, 207 are in intensive care — 17 more than reported on Thursday.

Percentage of positive tests • Under the state’s original method, the rate is 59.9% in the past day. That is higher than the seven-day average of 43.1%.

The state’s new method counts all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual. Friday’s rate was 28.6%, lower than the seven-day average of 30%.

[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 11.9 times as likely to die of COVID-19 as vaccinated people were, according to a Utah Department of Health analysis. The unvaccinated also were 5.7 times as likely to be hospitalized, and 2.3 times as likely to test positive for the coronavirus.

Totals to date • 825,989 cases; 4,030 deaths; 30,008 hospitalizations; 4,676,292 people tested.