Another COVID-19 surge? Utah cases, positivity rates and deaths are all up, state reports

Medical experts are cautioning against taking the virus too lightly.

(Charlie Ehlert | University of Utah Health) A health care worker attends to a patient in the intensive care unit at University Hospital in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, March 9, 2022.

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There was little but bad news in the Utah Department of Health’s weekly COVID-19 report on Thursday: More cases, a high positivity rate and more deaths than the week before.

“We’re in a surge phase again,” Dr. Brandon Webb, chair of Intermountain Healthcare’s COVID-19 therapeutics team, said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.

There were 4,504 new coronavirus cases and four more deaths in Utah in the past seven days, the health department reported. The number of new cases this week was more than a thousand more than the 3,385 reported last Thursday. The state’s seven-day average of new cases rose from 486.3 to about 645.

State officials are looking less to new cases as a way to track COVID-19 spread — and more to metrics including wastewater analysis, hospitalizations and emergency room visits — because fewer people are getting tested. In the past week, 18,027 people were tested — a decrease of 3,385 tests from the week before. The weekly rate of positive tests though rose from 12.15% to 15.37%.

“I’m not surprised by the report of today’s numbers,” Dr. Webb said. “I think it’s a significant undercount, and you can surmise that from our high-test positivity. But I think that the way this particular surge is behaving elsewhere, we should expect to continue to rise for another four weeks or so.”

The Utah Department of Health released a statement Thursday acknowledging the increases across the state, which — like Webb — noted that, “given trends in other areas of the country, we expect to see sustained increases over the coming weeks.”

Those trends are a good reminder to get vaccinated for COVID-19 if you have not done so already, including booster doses, the health department advised. “The vaccines provide protection from COVID-19 and can protect you from serious illness and the inconveniences of missed work and other activities,” the statement continued.

Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the pediatric infectious diseases division at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, said this surge is being caused by subvariants of omicron. But similar to omicron, hospitals are seeing fewer hospitalizations with respect to total cases — although they expect hospitalizations to rise as case counts increase.

”We don’t have enough experience yet to say how different are they, clinically, than the original omicron in terms of symptoms,” Pavia said. “What we can say is that, unfortunately, these new variants are able to infect people with partial immunity. So if you’ve just had omicron, just had two doses of vaccine, you’re quite susceptible again.”

“If you have higher levels of immunity, because you’ve had three doses of vaccine, or two doses of vaccine and an infection, or best yet three doses of vaccine and an infection — you’re pretty well protected,” Pavia continued. “But others, not so much.”

While there are no mask mandates in Utah, the health department is advising people who are at “higher risk of serious illness due to age or medical conditions” as well as those who live with people at higher risk to “consider taking precautions like wearing a mask in public places.”

UDOH also is calling on everyone who tests positive or has COVID-19 symptoms to stay home to avoid infecting others. Isolation guidance is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/protect-yourself.

“If you’re an individual who had three doses and has had COVID-19 recently, you probably don’t need to get the booster immediately — but should be thinking about getting it later this summer in preparation for the fall,” Webb said.

But if you have not received any booster doses, or are 50 or older, immunocompromised or otherwise high-risk, “think about getting boosted now,” Webb said.

Pavia cautioned against taking the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak lightly.

“There have been a million Americans who have died. A million Americans — more than in all of the wars that we fought put together,” Pavia said. “We’re approaching about 1,600 deaths among children. That is about 16 winters worth of influenza deaths.”

“It may not seem like a big deal if it hasn’t landed on your front door, but this has been a once-in-a-lifetime-changing event,” Pavia continued. “And just because you’ve been lucky not to be severely impacted yourself, you should really think about your neighbors, your community, the people in your congregations who’ve been affected, and the things you can do to help protect them.”

COVID-19 wastewater levels

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s survey of 32 municipal wastewater treatment facilities — covering roughly 88% of the state’s population — showed that 20.6% of those sites reported increasing COVID-19 RNA levels. This is significantly lower than the 63.6% of sites that reported increasing virus levels last week.

The state reported Thursday that four sites saw elevated COVID-19 levels. Nineteen sites were listed as under “watch,” meaning officials had detected enough of the virus to indicate “potential concern.” Last week, there were six sites with elevated levels and 17 sites on watch.

The majority of wastewater sites in Utah — 55.9% — are reporting “watch” levels of coronavirus. Another 29.4% reported “low” levels

Virus levels had plateaued at 61.8% of the sites, and 14.7% reported decreasing levels

COVID-19 hospitalization rates

Data shows coronavirus patients made up 2.33% of emergency room visits in the past week, compared to 1.53% the previous week.

Since last week, 348 more Utahns have been hospitalized with coronavirus, bringing the total to 34,595 patients hospitalized since the pandemic began. There are currently 118 COVID-19 patients in Utah hospitals, 41 more than last week.

The number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs increased by six to 18.

The state reported 16,574 more Utahns received a COVID-19 vaccine since May 12, the last time it released data. Of those, 2,597 are now fully vaccinated, meaning they have had two doses of an mRNA series vaccine, like Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech, or one dose of the Janssen vaccine.

About 62.2% of Utahns — a total of 2,020,992 — are fully vaccinated and 28.6% have received a booster shot, the data shows.

Breakdown of updated figures

Vaccine doses administered in the past week/total doses administered • 16,574 / 5,156,265.

Number of Utahns fully vaccinated • 2,020,991 — 62.2% of Utah’s total population. That is an increase of 2,597 in the past seven days.

Cases reported in the past week: 4,504.

Average cases per day reported in the past week • 645.

Tests reported from May 12 to May 18 • 21,412.

Deaths reported in the past week • Four.

Two Utah County residents died: A woman between the ages of 65-84, and a man 85 or older.

A Salt Lake County woman, 65-84, died, as did a Washington County man, 65-84.

Hospitalizations reported this week • 118 on Thursday, an increase of 41 in the past week. There were 18 in intensive care, six more than reported last week.

Percentage of positive tests • Counting all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual, this week’s rate was 15.37%. That is higher than the previous seven-day average of 12.15%.

Not counting an individual’s repeated test results, this week’s rate was 18.83%, higher than the previous seven-day average of 15.49%.

Totals to date • 943,368 cases; 4,765 deaths; 34,595 hospitalizations.