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Unvaccinated should expect to get infected with COVID-19 delta variant, Utah researcher warns

Tiffany Shaw, left, and her son, Carter Shaw, receive a sticker after being vaccinated at the Legacy Events Center in Farmington on May 13, 2021. A Utah researcher says unvaccinated Utahns should expect to be infected at some point with the highly contagious delta variant strain of COVID-19 that may make them sicker. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — It's too early to pinpoint the delta variant's role in a statewide uptick in COVID-19 cases, experts said Tuesday, but unvaccinated Utahns should expect to be infected at some point with the highly contagious strain that may make them sicker.

It could already be the dominant variant in Utah, leaving those not inoculated susceptible and twice as likely to spread it to others in their households, according doctors and a researcher at the University of Utah.

"You're not only going to ultimately get this virus yourself, you're more and more likely now than ever to give it to somebody else in your family, whether that's your kids or your elderly parents or grandparents," said Stephen Goldstein, a postdoctoral researcher at the university's medical school.

His comments came as the Utah Department of Health reported the following update Tuesday:

  • 249 new cases
  • 3 new deaths
  • 2,769 vaccinations administered

The rolling seven-day average for positive cases in the state is now at 295, up from 213 on June 1.

Goldstein said studies show that vaccines provide strong protection against the the variant first detected in India, although it's not yet clear just how much they limit its spread. He said there's no evidence to date that children are affected more severely than adults, but outbreaks are likely to occur among youngsters under age 12 because they're not yet eligible for a vaccine.

"We have a lot of susceptible children out there right now, and what will happen is that if we do have a surge this fall, this winter in Utah, those younger populations are going to be hit disproportionately," he said. "We need to vaccinate everyone around those kids until we can start vaccinating those kids."

He and other infectious disease experts said the best way to keep the strain at bay is for everyone who's eligible to get fully vaccinated.

"Viruses can't mutate when they don't have a host," said Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer for the university's health care system.

He said he has concerns about lower rates of vaccination among Utah's younger adults, citing state data. Higher rates would help protect people who can't be immunized because they have cancer or conditions that compromise their immune systems.

To date, 73% of Utahns in their 60s are fully vaccinated, compared to about 40% of Utahns in their 20s. Half in the 19-29 age group haven't gotten any shots, while 9% have had one of the two.

The statewide rate of those over the age of 12 with at least one shot is 60.6%, with 52% fully vaccinated.

Vinik said the university's hospitals are full as they treat a backlog of patients who delayed getting treatment for cancer, heart problems or other health issues in the pandemic, so "a surge at this point could be much more difficult to manage."

An uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases among those with symptoms in recent weeks happened at the same time more variants were spreading throughout the nation, he noted. The weekly rate of positive tests in the university health system climbed to 147 as of June 13, compared to 94 on May 23.

"Clearly there's a correlation," he said.

Still, Vinik added, other factors could also be at play, like Memorial Day gatherings and loosened pandemic restrictions, with many forgoing masks in public. Utah doesn't have enough access now to the genetic testing that's required to investigate which strains are behind the cases, Vinik said.

The doctors emphasized the vast majority of cases, hospitalizations and deaths since March 23 — the day the state opened vaccine eligibility to all adults — have been among unvaccinated people.

They acknowledged that many who haven't gotten a dose may not have a car or the ability to take time off work, while others have concerns about side effects, don't realize that it's free or simply don't see why they should be vaccinated. It's important for doctors and public health officials to address those concerns with sensitivity, said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Utah.

"I think the approach has to be tailored individually, which is where the physicians and the health care system and the public health department can have can have an effect where we can explain to people in a nonjudgmental way," Swaninathan said.

He estimated about 30% of positive tests in the Beehive State now are due to the mutant strain, but said it's uncertain how many so-called breakthrough cases it's caused among those fully vaccinated.

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