Utah is closing many of its COVID-19 test sites and discontinuing daily data releases about the virus’s spread, as Gov. Spencer Cox says residents “are ready to be done with this.”
“Let me be clear that this is not the end of COVID. But it is the beginning of treating COVID as we do other seasonal respiratory viruses,” Cox said in a news conference Friday. “There are a whole bunch of people who are unvaccinated and unboosted and at high risk who should take this disease much more seriously. There are also a whole bunch of people in our state who are vaccinated and boosted and young and at low risk, who could stand to take this disease a lot less seriously.”
The change comes as cases decline sharply from January’s surge of the omicron variant of the coronavirus — though they remain far higher than June and July of 2021, shortly before the delta variant spread through the state and filled Utah’s hospitals. ICUs at the state’s large “referral” hospitals have remained over capacity almost continuously since August, though COVID-19 admissions have declined in the past two weeks.
Cox also called on businesses to lift all mask and vaccine requirements, claiming the omicron variant disproved the value of the vaccine in preventing spread, and praised those that already have. The Utah Department of Health, however, reports that unvaccinated Utahns have been 2.4 times as likely to contract the virus during the omicron wave as vaccinated people have been.
Cox added that he hoped the Utah Legislature would not “need” to ban private businesses from requiring COVID mitigation measures, as lawmakers have in some other states.
“My hope is by the end of the legislative session there are no more businesses that have these restrictions in place so there’s no need for this type of bill,” Cox said. He said Utahns needed to evaluate their own personal risk “to protect ourselves and to live happily ever after.”
Cox repeatedly invoked science as the motive behind the changes in testing and data reporting, saying that the omicron variant has behaved predictably as it spread from country to country, producing a drastic rise in cases followed by a sharp decline after a few weeks.
However, said state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen, “We all know there’s a possibility ... of new variants coming.”
Cox praised the state’s genomic surveillance system, which analyzes a fraction of test samples for mutations of the virus. And the state is not entirely suspending testing, Cox said, and some sites likely will shift to “kiosks,” where patients collect and submit their own samples, similar to the testing process at many Intermountain Healthcare facilities.
But testing will largely shift to health care providers, Cox said, though the state will retain some of its testing contracts.
“We’ve seen over the last two years there’s been pauses or quiet periods in the numbers of infections, but we will be ready to move back if needed,” said Nate Checketts, director of the state health department.
As testing winds down and businesses are called upon to eliminate protections, it isn’t clear whether self-quarantine efforts will be successful if fewer infected people know they have COVID-19.
To track potential future surges, Nolen said the state will monitor for the virus in wastewater and by tracking clinic and emergency room visits. She also said hospital testing, hospitalizations and deaths will provide data; but patients generally don’t need hospital care until they have been infected for at least a few days, and increases in deaths also lag behind increases in new cases.
Cox stressed case counts have not been accurate since at-home testing became widely available in 2021 and said daily tallies of test results are not as useful as longer-term trends. The state will no longer provide daily data for cases, hospitalizations and death after April 1, instead providing those figures “probably ... more on a weekly basis.”
Checketts said testing still was recommended for Utahns who are at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 so they can seek antibody treatments that can prevent hospitalization and death, as well as for Utahns who work with high-risk people or in congregate settings.
Cox said the state’s wind-down is scheduled to be complete by March 31. The following sites have closed or are closing before next week: University of Utah tailgate lot, Utah Valley University, the Maverik Center, the Hyrum Senior Center, the Brigham Young University football stadium, Bluffdale City Park, and Ellison Park in Layton.
“We’ve closely monitored testing demand throughout the pandemic, and especially over the past several weeks. Many locations that used to test thousands of people a day are now testing fewer than 100,” Checketts said in a written statement. “We have worked to ensure other testing options are available in the vicinity of each site we are closing. Additionally, contracts with testing partners will remain in place, which provides us with the ability to re-open sites if the situation warrants.”
Cox acknowledged that surges in cases are likely to occur again but claimed omicron showed a “decoupling” of “the rate of spread of the virus and the deadliness of the virus and the the severe hospitalizations that went with that.”
In fact, state data show hospitalizations and deaths both rose sharply in January as the omicron variant spread across Utah — just not as sharply as cases rose. And there is no way to know whether future variants of the virus will cause deaths and hospitalizations at a lower or higher rate than the omicron variant did.
Cox also noted that vaccination rates are higher now than they were in summer 2021, right before cases surged statewide. However, the vaccination rate is less than 20% higher now than it was on July 1 — and research since then shows the effectiveness of the vaccine wanes over time. Only 26.3% of Utahns had received a booster dose as of Friday, suggesting many of those who were fully vaccinated before the fall surge now have less immunity to the virus.
Republican legislators praised the move to wind down testing.
“We’re supportive of the governor’s thoughts on an endemic phase in the state of Utah,” said Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, during a weekly news conference at the Capitol. “I think that we are seeing those numbers come down. We want to be cautious.”
— Tribune reporter Kim Bojórquez contributed to this story.
Feb. 18, 3:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to include additional details about how the state will monitor for potential future surges in coronavirus cases.