SALT LAKE CITY — Utah isn't expecting a significant spike in COVID-19 cases from last weekend's Memorial Day gatherings that marked the start of a summer with fewer virus restrictions, unlike what the state and the rest of the country experienced after past holiday celebrations.
Still, for many the three-day weekend was the first holiday since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 that was observed without masks, social distancing or other public health precautions that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer deem necessary for the fully vaccinated.
"I think the Memorial Day holiday is really going to act as a stress test for our community and our vaccination rate. Clearly, as you engage with the community, you see things getting back to normal, and more and more people without masks," Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, said.
It typically takes a week to 10 days to see the effect of holiday spread in coronavirus case numbers.
On Thursday, the Utah Department of Health reported 343 new cases and three additional deaths from the virus, all men hospitalized at the time of their deaths. Two were 45-64 and from Box Elder and Utah counties and a third was 65-84 and from Washington County.
Stenehjem said Utah could see some increase in cases as a result of the holiday, even though good weather meant many in the state spent much of the long weekend outdoors, where it is more difficult for the coronavirus to spread.
"I don't expect to see a major surge by any means. That being said, I would not be surprised to see our case rates go up a bit in the next seven to 10 days, given that there's plenty of unvaccinated individuals and we know that those people remain at risk," he said.
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, offered a similar forecast.
"Right now, the numbers are in our favor, going down fairly consistently, but it's worth keeping an eye on. We may see a bit of a plateau or a slight increase," Kim said. "I personally don't think we'll see any significant surge; if we do, it'll be later in the summer."
Kim also described the Memorial Day holiday as "a really good test of how well the vaccines work in an environment where social distancing is minimal," something he said is likely to be more of a problem in states with low vaccination rates.
As of Thursday, a total of 2,612,068 vaccine doses had been administered in Utah, a daily increase of 9,713. Nearly 47% of Utahns have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and 38.3% of the state's residents are fully vaccinated, meaning it's been at least two week since their final dose.
Nationally, vaccination numbers are higher than in Utah, with just under 51% of Americans having had at least one dose and 41.2% fully vaccinated. But Utah has the highest percentage of residents under 18, nearly 30% compared to 22% nationwide, and vaccines are only authorized for those 12 and older.
"One of the challenges Utah will have is we have a very large proportion of our population that are children," Stenehjem said, who aren't old enough to get the shots but still are able to catch and transmit the virus. "It means that more and more adults need to be vaccinated."
Americans got the go-ahead to relax and enjoy the holiday from Rachel Walensky, head of the CDC.
"If you're vaccinated, go enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. Certainly you — we've all been longing for some time away, some time to do the things we love with the people we love," Walensky said before the start of the long weekend that saw millions in the U.S. traveling.
She said she was not as worried about an increase in coronavirus cases following Memorial Day because of the nation's vaccination rate. Earlier this year, President Joe Biden had set July Fourth as the goal for the first mask-free celebration, now he wants 70% of Americans to have gotten at least their first vaccine dose by then.
Those who have not yet gotten the shots are still advised to wear a mask when social distancing is not possible, even outdoors, if they are around others who may be more vulnerable to the virus even after vaccination, including the elderly and immunocompromised.
Stenehjem said if there's not a post-Memorial Day increase in cases, "you could say Utahns are still being vigilant, and those that are at risk are taking preventative precautions. You could say people celebrated smartly, they were outside, transmission rates were less because of the holiday and the absolutely beautiful weather that we had."
But he stressed that no surge shouldn't be seen as a signal to those who haven't been vaccinated that they can forget about getting the shots.
"Our message isn't going to change," the doctor said. "We still have people in the hospital that are critically ill and some dying from COVID-19. We still see severe illness from this infection. We see it in our hospitals. And these cases are devastating to the individuals and to the families."
State public health officials are hopeful there won't be an impact from Memorial Day.
"It's anybody's guess, right?" state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said. "Given our vaccination rates, I hope that we've moved beyond that. This was certainly an issue with holidays of the past," particularly Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Since January, he said there have not been any surges on a statewide scale. Vaccines were starting to become more widely available, after first being distributed late last year to front-line health care workers and long-term care facility residents.
"Presidents Day, spring break — I know there was some concern with spring breaks, people traveling to other parts of the state," Hudachko said, adding there were some local outbreaks in Utah, including in Grand County during spring break activities there.
Memorial Day could be different, he said.
"Certainly, we haven't seen any indication whatsoever so far that there's something coming," Hudachko said, adding it's still too soon to know for sure. "It'll be next week before we see anything."