SALT LAKE CITY — While there are new reports that the latest surge of COVID-19 cases in the United States may have peaked, the highly contagious delta variant continues to race through Utah, claiming the life of a Salt Lake County teenager who was not vaccinated against the virus.
Salt Lake County Health Department Nicholas Rupp said Thursday the department would not discuss "the tragic death of a minor," but confirmed the COVID-19 death of a county resident 12 to 17 years old who was not vaccinated and had no known underlying conditions.
Because the Utah Department of Health also reported the death of a Salt Lake County female 15 to 24 years old who was hospitalized at the time of her death, the young victim of the virus is believed to be between 15 and 17 years old.
This is the second death from COVID-19 of someone in the state under 18 years old. In March, a Salt Lake County boy between 1 and 14 years old died from the virus. He was hospitalized at the time of his death, according to the state health department.
Rupp had a message for parents.
"If your children are eligible but have not yet been vaccinated, please get them protected; the vaccine is safe and widely available through the community," he said. The age limit for vaccinations against COVID-19 was lowered from 16 to 12 in May.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson echoed that plea in a statement.
"My heart is broken to learn that another child has died from COVID in Salt Lake County. Please protect your family by vaccinating those who are eligible," the county leader said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall also weighed in, tweeting, "Today's news that a teenager from our county died is tragic, and my heart is with her family, friends and community. At her age, the horizon of life was wide open offering endless possibilities. Please protect yourselves and your loved ones."
The death was one of 12 reported by the state health department Thursday, along with 1,687 new virus cases, including 413 cases in school-aged children — 162 in 5 to 10 year olds; 119 in 11 to 13 year olds; and 132 cases in 14 to 18 year olds.
Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, said the death of a second school-aged youth in the state shows why Utahns should be vaccinated and continue to take precautions against spreading the virus, such as wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings.
"It's tragic," Webb said. "Any loss of life due to this terrible disease is tragic. I think it continues to reinforce the importance of doing everything we can as quickly as we can to curtail the spread of this infection and to prevent the continued impact on our lives and livelihoods."
Has the delta variant peaked?
Precautions are needed even though there's the possibility the delta variant may be slowing, with number of new daily U.S. cases rising less over the past week than at any point since June, according to The New York Times, suggesting the surge sparked by the virus variant may have peaked since previous surges lasted a "mysterious" two months.
"We are hopeful," Webb said, although it's too soon to say that's the case in Utah.
What he called the "immune buffer," the combination of Utahns who are vaccinated against the virus and those who have had it, along with preventative behaviors, "are the things that we can control to accelerate how quickly we can get through this."
But there are still "some really important wild cards that we really don't have an understanding of yet," Webb said. Those include what will happen now that the new school year has started as well as the change in seasons bringing fall and winter holiday celebrations.
"We need more time to be able to really accurately project whether we have peaked. And if we have peaked, whether we're going to see a slower, flatter curve that's going to just persist for a while, or whether we're going to start coming down again," he said.
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said Utahns need to think long-term.
"Until we have enough people who have some immune response to COVID, we're not out of the woods," Kim said, adding he suspects there are many unreported COVID-19 cases. "So we need to be careful. To me, this is really a delicate time."
He warned that if there is "a decline or a peak, I think it's temporary. I think we will see further surges."