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SALT LAKE CITY — Although Utah's COVID-19 case rates remain stable, one infectious disease physician said Friday they're too high for comfort going into the holidays and colder weather.
"We're starting out in a place that doesn't give us a lot of confidence," Dr. Brandon Webb, Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician, said during a virtual news conference.
On Friday, the Utah Department of Health confirmed 3,842 new COVID-19 cases — 2,083 cases on Thursday and 1,779 cases on Friday. Due to Veterans Day, new data was not reported Thursday.
The rolling, seven-day average for new cases is now 1,568 per day, and the average positivity rate of people getting tested is 17.3%.
Webb said hospital leaders are watching the trends in neighboring states to get an idea of what might happen in Utah and plan a response.
"We're continuing this somewhat flattened curve here in Utah where cases remain high but somewhat stable over the last few weeks," he said. "And that's in contrast to some of the other states around us and elsewhere in the country who had much higher rates of increase, and then some of these states are on the downswing."
Idaho, for several weeks, has seen much higher rates of case growth and hospitalizations, Webb noted, but they're now on a downswing in that state. The consequences of sustained case increases have included "significant overcrowding" in hospitals.
Colorado, meanwhile, is now seeing a "significant" upswing in cases, prompting officials to enact measures to prevent hospital overcrowding, according to Webb.
As in spring of 2020, Webb explained the country is experiencing an "east to west" shift in surges.
Utah will likely start its winter months with higher rates of disease, Webb said, and health care resources already are saturated. That means the state will see a potential surge "without a lot of leeway" and "no room for error."
The mortality rate remains a concern, as well as the capacity to care for patients with other conditions statewide. School and business absenteeism caused by higher rates of the coronavirus could cause economic impacts, the doctor said.
Webb said other respiratory viruses are also already at peak winter volumes.
But the ability to vaccinate children — after emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine was granted for ages 5-11 late last month — could help the state develop a larger immune buffer, Webb said. It's too early now to tell whether vaccinating that age group has yet made a difference, "but we expect that it will."
For Utahns who have already had COVID-19, getting vaccinated is still recommended, Webb said, although previous infection does provide strong protection. But he emphasized that immunity from infection and from vaccines are both forms of "natural immunity," as the vaccine prompts one's body to develop antibodies.
Infection-acquired immunity "is excellent ... and there's no reason to have two camps," of those who believe only in vaccine-acquired immunity and those who believe only in infection-acquired immunity, Webb said.
Both types of immunity wane over time, he said, pointing to a study from Israel that found patients with an infection six to 12 months prior compared to those who received the vaccine six to 12 months prior, the infection-acquired immunity was potentially stronger at preventing cases of COVID-19. Webb said researchers are working to understand the effects of booster shots on that dynamic, and he suspects they will "level the playing field."
But the "best scenario" of protection belongs to those who have had COVID-19, survived and then were vaccinated with at least one dose, Webb said.
When asked why respiratory viruses are peaking earlier this year, Webb said the dynamics of respiratory seasons are based on what happens globally. Because of protective measures last year like mask-wearing and social distancing, he said the community did not face the burden of respiratory viruses besides COVID-19 in 2020.
With the decreased emphasis on mask-wearing this year, Webb said the state is seeing a much higher rate of other respiratory virus, including croup and RSV, and doctors expect that as the flu emerges it will lead to much higher rates of influenza.
New Utah data
Of the cases reported Friday, 892 were school-age children, including 468 ages 5-10, 196 ages 11-13, and 228 ages 14-17, according to the state health department.
Health care workers administered 29,631 vaccine doses since Wednesday's report, bringing total doses given to 3,904,030.
In the last 28 days, unvaccinated residents have faced 18.3 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 11.4 times greater risk of hospitalization, and 4.6 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people, state health officials said in an update.
Since Feb. 1, unvaccinated residents have seen 8.5 times greater risk of dying from COVID-19, 7.2 times greater risk of hospitalization, and 3.4 times greater risk of testing positive for COVID-19 than vaccinated people.
As of Friday, Utah has confirmed 34,423 breakthrough cases — meaning infections in people who had been fully vaccinated more than two weeks prior. The state has also confirmed 1,551 breakthrough hospitalizations and 218 breakthrough deaths since the vaccines became available earlier this year.
The vaccine does not cause COVID-19, health care officials have said, but prevents serious disease for the majority who receive it. Some people with comorbidities do not receive strong protection against the disease even after being fully vaccinated, according to doctors.
Utah confirmed 22 additional deaths since Wednesday, bringing the death toll to 3,347. Those deaths include:
- A Box Elder County man, older than 85, who was hospitalized when he died.
- A Box Elder County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Davis County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- An Emery County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Grand County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
- A Salt Lake County man, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 65-84, not hospitalized.
- A Tooele County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Tooele County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Uintah County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
- A Utah County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Washington County woman, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Washington County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Weber County man, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Weber County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- Three Weber County men, 65-84, not hospitalized.