As COVID-19 cases increase, Utah health officials aim to prevent ‘tripledemic’ this fall

Officials are planning a more “holistic” approach to combat harmful respiratory viruses, even as coronavirus gets the most attention.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) A health care worker holds a coronavirus test to distribute at a drive-thru testing location in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

As fall respiratory virus season approaches, nearly three years after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Utah health officials plan to focus less on COVID-19 and more on preventing the so-called “tripledemic” that hit hospitals and clinics last year.

The tripledemic is a three-punch combo of coronavirus, flu and RSV — diseases that produce similar symptoms and can be severe, even deadly, for some. It wrecked havoc on health care providers last year.

State epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said this year’s approach would be more “holistic,” with health officials monitoring all three diseases.

“Flu, and RSV, and COVID — they can cause really severe disease, and some years can be really bad, and some years can be less bad,” Nolen said. “So watching all three of those, it’s useful to be able to know what’s coming and what’s happening.”

The Salt Lake County Health Department is heading into the fall with a similar approach, spokesperson Nicholas Rupp said.

Both groups plan to monitor hospitalizations, wastewater surveys and deaths. Rupp said even without accurate COVID-19 testing data, he’s not worried that spikes will go unnoticed or spread out of control.

“You don’t have to know what respiratory virus you have to know you need to stay home and protect others,” he said, “right?”

Social isolation is still an important tool against the spread of disease, and he said anyone feeling coughy, achey and feverish should stay home.

Is coronavirus increasing in Utah?

Short answer: Yes, but slowly.

Utah health department data shows that hospitalizations and test positivity rates have been rising. The same is true nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A subvariant of COVID-19 called EG.5 or “Eris” is behind much of the recent growth nationally, accounting for about 17% of cases, according to the CDC. Nolen said that variant is already in Utah.

The World Health Organization identified it as a variant of interest on Aug. 9. The organization noted that while this variant has shown “no reported changes in disease severity,” it was spreading quickly enough to “become dominant in some countries or even globally.”

The latest Utah health department data, released Thursday, shows 665 COVID-19 cases reported in the last week, up from 475 the week before, though at-home tests are not reported.

Hospitalizations are also increasing, with a 22.3% increase in the 7-day average of COVID-19 patients, as well as slight increases in the average number of ICU cases, the average number of new hospital admissions and the percentage of emergency room visits for the coronavirus.

While numbers are increasing, they are also relatively small. For instance, there were 35 COVID-19 patients in Utah hospitals as of Thursday. Last year, that number was 205.

The U.S. has also seen a 10% increase in deaths in the past week, according to the CDC, while Utah’s deaths have remained more or less stable.

This week, Utah reported five deaths, all in Salt Lake County. They included one man age 25-44; two men and a woman ages 65-84; and one man 85 or older.

When to get a COVID-19 vaccine

Short answer: Whenever you get your flu vaccine in the fall.

Nolen and Rupp agreed that those who aren’t “current” on their COVID-19 vaccine should wait until after the CDC affirms a new formulation to fight the eris variant. (”Current,” according to the CDC, means you received a coronavirus vaccine in September 2022, or after.)

The new COVID-19 vaccine release will likely coincide with your annual flu shot, they said. If you’re 60 or older, you may also be able to receive the new RSV vaccine. You can get all of these vaccines in one appointment, Rupp said.

Soon, but likely not this respiratory virus season, there will be an RSV vaccine available for children as well, Nolen said.

In the meantime, Rupp said he’s advised friends and family to “be cautious” as they wait on the new COVID-19 vaccine. He’s begun wearing a mask when he visits crowded indoor places, and he said others hoping to avoid getting sick should, too.