With more than 6,800 new coronavirus cases reported in the last week, Utah has officially surpassed 1 million cases since the start of the pandemic — but it’s likely that the state met this milestone “months ago” because of a “dramatic undercount” of positive tests amid a surge of the virus’s most transmissible strain yet.
Intermountain Healthcare’s Dr. Eddie Stenehjem said at a Thursdays news conference that the state’s reported numbers are lower than reality because they don’t capture results from at-home tests, or cases where someone was infected but asymptomatic and never sought testing.
“We passed one million COVID cases long ago,” he said. “Whether it’s been months or multiple months since we hit the one-million mark, it’s hard to say.”
Still, available data indicates that the BA.5 omicron subvariant has surged in the state for months, pushing up hospitalizations in the last three weeks, said Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician. Deaths and COVID-19 patients needing care in intensive care units, however, have remained relatively stable.
Even with the undercount, Salt Lake, San Juan, Summit, Tooele, Piute and Wasatch counties as of Thursday all reported numbers that put them into the Center For Disease Control and Prevention’s “high transmission” category. While the CDC recommends people in high-transmission counties “wear a well-fitting mask indoors in public, regardless of vaccination status,” no county in Utah has any sort of indoor mask mandate.
How to stay safe — now and in the future
Masks and social distancing were the norm in the beginning stages of the pandemic, but since vaccinations have become widely available, Utah has deferred to personal risk reduction strategies rather than public health mandates regarding the pandemic.
“There isn’t one answer that fits every person,” Stenehjem said. “At this point, we really have to look to ourselves and say, ‘what is my risk of getting COVID? What is the risk of me transmitting to high-risk individuals? What is that impact going to be on my life?’”
Stenehjem said that individuals at a high risk for contracting COVID should wear well-fitting masks in crowded indoor areas to prevent potential severe disease and hospitalization.
With the end of summer approaching — and with it, the start of school and more time spent indoors —Stenehjem said his greatest concern is Utah’s low booster rates. Just under 50% of fully vaccinated Utahns have received one booster shot. About 15% have received a second booster.
This variant is more “immune-evasive” than previous strains, meaning even those with some immunity because of past infections of vaccination status can be infected. Still, Stenehjem said getting vaccinated will stave off the worst outcomes, like serious illness, hospitalization or death.
Stenehjem said that “now is the time” for children to be vaccinated ahead of the school year. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines for children older than six months.
In the future Stenehjem said he expects that coronavirus will become one of the regular seasonal viruses that cycle every fall and winter. He said creating a variant-specific vaccine every year, such as a flu shot, could become the norm.
COVID-19 wastewater levels and deaths this week
Wastewater monitoring, which more reliably tracks spread than testing numbers because it relies on detecting coronavirus in sewage samples, shows levels have plateaued and dropped across much of the state. The wastewater treatment facility in Roosevelt is the only site reporting increasing numbers.
While many sites plateaued, 22 sites detected “elevated” levels of the virus. Nine sites were put on “watch” status, meaning their levels show a potential for concern but not enough to be considered elevated.
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services on Thursday also reported 15 more people have died from the coronavirus.
Salt Lake County reported the most deaths, including a woman between the age of 65-84, three women 85 or older and two men 85 or older. Three Utah County men died: one age 25-44, one age 45-64 and one between 65-84 years old.
Two women, both 85 or older, died in Carbon County.
Davis, Millard, San Juan and Washington counties each reported one death, including a man age 45-64, two women ages 65-84 and a woman 85 or older.
At 238, there were, on average, more coronavirus patients in Utah hospitals on any day this past week than last week. As of Thursday, 242 were hospitalized. There have been 36,752 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah throughout the pandemic.
The number of coronavirus patients in ICUs increased to 40, compared to 36 at this time last week.
The state reported 18,090 more people received a dose of the vaccine since July 14, the last time they released data. Of those, 2,264 became 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 62.7% of Utahns are fully vaccinated, according to the department of health.
Breakdown of updated figures:
Vaccine doses administered in the past week/total doses administered • 18,090 / 5,298,984.
Number of Utahns fully vaccinated • 2,036,732 — 62.7% of Utah’s total population. Another 965,804 Utahns are boosted, or 29.7% of the population.
Cases reported in the past week • 6,870.
Average cases per day reported in the past week • 981.
Deaths reported in the past week • 15.
Hospitalizations reported this week • 267 Utahns were hospitalized in the past week. As of Thursday, a total of 242 remained in the hospital, fewer than the prior week. There were 40 in intensive care, a slight increase from the 36 reported last week.
Percentage of positive tests • Counting all test results, including repeated tests of the same individual, 28.1% of the tests conducted came back positive, compared to 27.9% at this point last week.
When repeated tests on the same individual are not counted, 36.1% of the tests administered yielded positive results, almost unchanged from last week’s 36.3% figure.
Totals to date • 1,004,426 cases; 4,884 deaths; 36,752 hospitalizations.