Utah COVID cases increase; health experts urge Utahns to get updated vaccines

RSV immunizations for young children and people over 60 are also recommended.

(Melissa Majchrzak | Primary Children’s Hospital) Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, interacts with a child who received a COVID-19 vaccination on Nov. 5, 2021.

As Utah COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations inch up, medical experts at University of Utah Health are urging people to get the latest vaccines — and to get flu shots and RSV immunizations.

“COVID is continuing to evolve. … It is a dynamic virus that keeps changing,” Andrew Pavia, chief of U. Health’s pediatric infectious diseases division, said during a Friday news conference.

Vaccines are proving effective against recent COVID variants, including EG.5 or “Eris” and FL.1.5.1, Pavia said. He noted another variant, BA.2.86, is “not living up to its potential” — because it’s not spreading as fast as originally feared, and both vaccines and previous COVID infections are proving to be effective against it. “We’re watching it. But currently, it does not appear to be a large threat.”

Overall, “the most recent news is actually pretty good for a change,” Pavia said. “We’re in pretty good shape with the vaccines right now. We expect them to work pretty well.”

But COVID cases and hospitalizations have still been ticking up over the past three months. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer with U. Health, also acknowledged there’s far less COVID testing happening at hospitals than there was during the pandemic.

In the first week of June, 25 positive cases were reported in the U. Health system, but there’s been a gradual trend upward since, which grew “even more dramatic over the past six weeks.” Last week, more than 200 cases of COVID were reported.

Hospitalizations have also increased since June, from a low of five to about 15. Almost all those hospitalized with COVID are either unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, meaning they did not receive booster shots.

“So, good news — the vaccines are still effective,” Vinik said. “And we expect this new booster to be even more effective at preventing cases and hospitalizations.”

New vaccines ‘greatly reduce’ hospitalization risk

Keeping up to date with COVID vaccination is important because the virus continues to mutate, and immunity “fades over time,” Pavia said. “So protection lasts for only a couple of months against any infection,” although there is still “measurable protection out to a year” against severe cases that require hospitalization.

“It won’t be perfect protection,” but it will “greatly reduce your risk of ending up in the hospital,” he said. Particularly for those who have asthma, heart disease or are pregnant.

The experts Friday also pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that everyone over the age of 60 get an RSV vaccination to prevent “severe disease” and hospitalizations. Those vaccines are expected to be available in Utah “quite soon.”

And there’s also a new RSV immunization — monoclonal antibodies — for infants. “Children have a really high risk of ending up in the hospital with RSV in their first six months of life,” Pavia said. “About 2% of all children will end up with an RSV hospitalization. … If you think about a one in 50 chance that your baby can end up in the hospital unable to breathe and then unable to eat, it seems like a pretty good deal to be able to avoid it.”

It’s expected to be available in Utah in a couple of weeks.

Vaccine side effects relatively minimal

The University of Utah Health experts made several other points during the Friday news conference, including:

• The two new COVID vaccines are MRNA vaccines, with possible side effects that include sore arms, headaches and “a little bit of fever and fatigue,” Pavia said. “Some people react more than others. We don’t anticipate any new side effects.”

• There doesn’t appear to be a “detectable risk” of the new vaccines causing myocarditis (the inflammation of heart muscle) in young males. “Currently, the risks are very, very low,” Pavia said. “So the benefits dramatically outweigh the risk.”

• Vinik said well-fitting masks, particularly N95 or KN95s, remain “very effective” at preventing the spread of COVID, flu and RSV. But he does not foresee the return of mask mandates. “These are individual decisions that people make. … We certainly encourage people who are at risk of severe consequences due to underlying conditions to wear masks, because it does protect them.”

The CDC’s current recommendation is that people who test positive for COVID should stay home for five days, then wear a mask for an additional five days should they go out, to keep from infecting others

• The panel recommended getting vaccines as soon as possible. They said there’s no problem getting both COVID and flu shots at the same time. However, although it’s possible to get COVID, flu and RSV shots at the same time, they recommended avoiding that.

“Common sense is that may increase your chances that you’re not going to feel great,” Pavia said.

For more information about getting a COVID vaccination in Utah, visit coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine/.