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SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah sees a slightly lower average COVID-19 case count this week compared to last, one doctor said Friday it could be a sign the state is on a downward trend like some other national hot spots of the disease.
The state's rolling average for new cases stood at 1,574 last Friday, Sept. 17 — it fell to 1,390 on Friday, according to the latest data from the Utah Department of Health.
Utah health officials confirmed 1,672 new cases on Friday, as well as nine deaths caused by COVID-19. The average rate of positive tests now stands at 13.6%.
"In Utah, it's still too early to say that we have leveled off, but the numbers are suggestive that we may be seeing the same trend here," Dr. Brandon Webb, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said during a news conference.
While a map of the state representing transmission rates in each area still shows a "red wash" — meaning high rates of disease spread — Webb said areas in the Beehive State with higher vaccination rates tend to be those with decreasing transmission.
A high percentage of cases is occuring in younger adults and children, age 24 and younger, who account for 35% of the recent cases, Webb said. Meanwhile, the 65-and-older group has experienced a lower rate of disease, which Webb said is in line with vaccination rates, as older residents are more likely to be vaccinated.
Though the falling case counts are optimistic, Intermountain Healthcare leaders believe hospitalizations will continue to be "overwhelming" through October, as hospitalizations are a lagging indicator, Webb said. Patients who get severe illness with COVID-19 tend to need hospitalization several days after contracting the disease.
Patient counts in intensive care units for conditions not related to COVID-19 is now above 85% more than average, Webb said. Coronavirus "hub" hospitals that can treat the most serious patients are above capacity, he added.
"Right now we have a lot of disease that is non-COVID related but is still very serious, requires ICU care, and is every bit as deserving of care as COVID," Webb said.
But natural immunity through previous infection, paired with vaccinations, is starting to create an "immune buffer" in communities, according to the doctor.
That buffer "needs to get to a level where we're not fostering the emergence of new variants," Webb said.
Much remains uncertain about the upcoming viral season, Webb said, especially as fewer Utahns practice the same health precautions than they did last year. Last winter, the state saw historically low rates of the flu, RSV and other highly contagious respiratory viruses.
"This could be a viral winter the likes of which we've never seen before" because of the presence of COVID-19 and other circulating viruses, Webb warned, encouraging Utahns who haven't done so to get the vaccine.
Responding to a question about side effects and deaths from vaccination, Webb acknowledged the side effects are "very real" due to the mechanism of action from the vaccine, as it stimulates the immune system to respond to the virus. It's common for people who receive the vaccine to experience fatigue, headache and chills. Some will have a fever.
Webb called those short-term symptoms an "investment" that demonstrate the vaccine is doing what it's meant to do.
He said there isn't data to show long-term consequences, but some people do experience rare side effects like blood clots, which tend to be more common in younger women with specific genetic conditions that make them predisposed to clots. But the rate of people who experience clotting is 10-20 per 1 million people, Webb said.
The mRNA vaccines, he said, also can cause inflammation of the heart in between 20-50 cases per 1 million, which doctors are monitoring "very closely." For most of the few who experience it, that symptom is short-term.
Webb also praised the Utah Department of Health for starting to open centers that offer monoclonal antibody treatment. The treatment has been touted by state officials as a way to prevent hospitalizations. Webb said Intermountain Healthcare has needed to limit the number of antibody treatments it can perform, as it requires administration by a nurse and resources are stretched thin.
The most at-risk patients have been prioritized for the treatment, creating frustration among some residents as those who test positive have been urged to look into antibody therapy early in their illnesses.
Aaron White said he, his wife Laurie White, and their two children tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Aaron White had been vaccinated, but his wife had not due to her concerns over past health complications, he said.
The couple became frustrated as they tried to seek treatment from their primary care providers, who said they aren't offering it. When they tried to register to receive the treatment through Intermountain, White said, the process included emailing back-and-forth with the hospital system, and phone calls that showed up as spam from the hospital, which could not be returned.
Ultimately, they were both told they scored too low on a risk assessment to qualify for the monoclonal antibody treatment.
Laurie White "woke up on Thursday feeling even worse, including having some trouble breathing, brain fog, chills, body aches, breathing quick and shallow, headaches, and feeling really not good," her husband said.
When they called Intermountain Healthcare's TeleHealth, they were urged to go to InstaCare.
"We did and they said her vitals looked good. She asked if she could get the infusion, and they said no, that her score wasn't high enough and just to continue to treat it with painkillers and expect this to last two to three weeks," White recalled.
"We're super frustrated that there are therapeutics that have been proven effective for those that have COVID and we can't even get access to them. How sick do you have to be to get access to them? I thought they were trying to keep the hospitals from being overrun, yet we can't get any access to this or any other therapeutics," White told KSL.com.
Webb said the treatment isn't the only answer in fighting the pandemic.
"On a population-level though, there's some very important logistical challenges that make monoclonal antibodies an effective tool for treating patients, but not a game-changing tool for significantly changing the course of the outbreak," Webb said.
"Like with all treatments, we're excited by any new technology that allows us to care for patients with COVID more effectively," he said, adding that monoclonal antibodies have been very effective at preventing hospitalization and death "when used to treat patients who are at the highest risk for these poor outcomes."
New Utah data
Of new cases confirmed Friday, 358 were school-age children — 148 cases were ages 5-10, 96 were ages 11-13, and 114 were ages 14-17, according to the health department.
Health care workers administered 5,159 more vaccine doses since Thursday's report, bringing the total number of vaccine doses given in the state to 3,416,501.
In the last 28 days, the state health department says unvaccinated residents have faced 5.3 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 7.6 times greater risk of being hospitalized due to the disease, and 6.5 times greater risk of testing positive than vaccinated people.
Since Feb. 1, the unvaccinated in Utah have seen 4.2 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 5.0 times greater risk of being hospitalized, and 4.3 times greater risk of testing positive than vaccinated people, data shows.
Of the cases reported Friday, 358 were "breakthrough," meaning they had been fully vaccinated more than two weeks ago. The state also confirmed seven new breakthrough hospitalizations and one breakthrough death, according to the data.
Since vaccines became available to the public early this year, the state has confirmed 16,237 breakthrough cases, 834 breakthrough hospitalizations and 107 breakthrough deaths. Cases are counted as breakthroughs if patients were fully vaccinated more than two weeks before they tested positive for the coronavirus.
On Friday, 587 patients were hospitalized in the state with COVID-19, an increase of 25 since the previous day.
The latest deaths include:
- A Duchesne County woman, between the ages of 65 and 84, who was hospitalized when she died.
- An Iron County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- Two Salt Lake County women, 65-84, both hospitalized.
- Two Utah County men, 45-64, both hospitalized.
- A Washington County man, 65-84, hospitalized.