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Focus needs to stay on vaccination, not COVID-19 boosters or herd immunity, Utah physician says

Intermountain Healthcare Infectious Diseases Physician Dr. Eddie Stenehjem speaks during a COVID-19 news conference on Tuesday July 13, 2021.

Intermountain Healthcare Infectious Diseases Physician Dr. Eddie Stenehjem speaks during a COVID-19 news conference on Tuesday July 13, 2021. (Intermountain Healthcare, via Zoom)



SALT LAKE CITY — Herd immunity might not be feasible, and COVID-19 will likely be around for years to come, but now is not the time to worry about those issues, one Utah health care professional said Tuesday

Right now, public health officials need to focus on reassuring the public that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician Dr. Eddie Stenehjem said during a news conference Tuesday.

"It is a time for us to reassure the public that these vaccines are scrutinized heavily and that they are well-studied, and that it is a safe vaccine and it's very, very effective," Stenehjem said. "Let's not get distracted with variants, let's not get distracted with boosters. Let's focus at the task at hand, and that task at hand is getting more people vaccinated."

The Utah Department of Health reported 471 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, along with three more deaths and 4,678 more vaccinations. Utah's rolling seven-day average for positive cases stands at 490 per day, and there are currently 231 COVID-19 patients in hospitals statewide, the health department reported.

The positive test rate per day for the last week calculated with the "people over people" method is now 12.9%. The positive test rate per day for that time period calculated with the "test over test" method is 8.7%

Intermountain hospitals are seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, mostly due to the statewide spread of the delta variant of the disease among unvaccinated people, Stenehjem said.

But while the delta variant has become much more prominent in Utah over the last several months, there hasn't been a big increase in breakthrough COVID-19 cases among people who have already been fully vaccinated against the disease. That suggests that so far, the vaccines are protecting people against the delta variant, Stenehjem said.

That doesn't mean booster shots won't be needed sometime down the line, he said. Discussions and controversies on whether or not booster shots are needed and when people should get them will come, he added.

Stenehjem speculated that COVID-19 could become like the common flu in future years. Influenza is constantly changing, which means the general public remains susceptible to the disease. That's why flu shots are needed every year when flu season comes around.

Herd immunity comes when there is long-lasting protection from a disease over a long period of time, sometimes a decade or more, Stenehjem said. It's unknown whether that will be feasible or even possible with COVID-19, so that shouldn't be the public health focus right now, he said.

"Whether or not herd immunity is even feasible is I think a big question," Stenehjem said. "We're watching and we're waiting and we're seeing how the data plays out."

Vaccines are the only tool available that has been proven to be effective and safe in protecting against the disease, he said. Public health officials and the general public should simply be concerned with getting vaccines out to as many people as possible — not achieving a certain vaccination rate that may or may not provide herd immunity, Stenehjem said.

"Our continued focus needs to be just strictly on vaccination," Stenehjem said.

Of the 231 patients currently hospitalized with COVID-19, 92 are in intensive care, according to the health department. About 70% of all intensive care unit beds in Utah are now occupied, including about 73% of ICU beds in the state's 16 referral hospitals. About 54% of non-ICU hospital beds are now occupied in Utah.

A total of 2,920,649 vaccines have been administered in the state, up from 2,915,971 Monday. A total of 1,610,306 Utahns, or about 50.2% of the state's population, has now received at least a first dose of the vaccine, while 1,435,924 residents, or about 44.8% of the population, are fully vaccinated. Among Utahns ages 12 and older, who are currently able to receive the vaccines, about 62.1% have received at least a first dose, and 55.4% are fully vaccinated.

Of the 2,838,114 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 14.8% have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of total tests conducted in Utah is now 5,177,718, up 6,409 since Monday. Of those, 3,683 were tests of people who hadn't previously been tested for the disease.

The three deaths reported Tuesday were:

  • A Davis County man between the ages of 45 and 64 who was hospitalized when he died.
  • A Salt Lake County woman between the ages of 45 and 64 who was hospitalized when she died.
  • A Salt Lake County woman between the ages of 65 and 84 who was hospitalized when she died.

Tuesday's totals give Utah 420,685 total confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 17,857 hospitalizations and 2,402 deaths from the disease since the beginning of the pandemic.

Methodology

See more details about KSL.com's COVID-19 data and methodology by clicking this link.

More information about Utah's health guidance levels is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-health-guidance-levels.

Information is from the Utah Department of Health and coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts. For more information on how the Utah Department of Health compiles and reports COVID-19 data, visit coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts and scroll down to the "Data Notes" section at the bottom of the page.

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