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SALT LAKE CITY — With a new COVID-19 variant spreading quickly on the African continent, a University of Utah doctor said Monday that it's likely a "given" the variant will hit Utah — but there's no reason to panic.
The omicron variant was reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24. as infections have "increased steeply" in South Africa, according to the agency.
In Utah, health officials reported 2,476 new COVID-19 cases since Friday, as well as 21 deaths. The majority of current cases in the state are due to the delta variant. The rolling, seven-day average for new cases is 1,123 per day, and the average positive rate of those tested is 15.1%, according to the Utah Department of Health.
What doctors know about the omicron variant
Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, infectious diseases division chief at University of Utah Health, noted that health officials do not believe the South Africa outbreak was due to a super spread event or "bad luck," but a high rate of transmission of the omicron variant.
The surge in South Africa and neighboring countries has caused concern, especially as the variant has an "extremely large" number of changes in its spike protein, which allows the virus to infect cells. Any changes in that protein could improve or decrease the virus' ability to replicate, Swaminathan explained. That could lead to decreased vaccine efficacy.
When asked whether the variant could change Utah's approach to the disease going into December, Swaminathan said: "I think if you listen to all the experts, they're all saying the same thing, which is we don't know a lot yet."
The variant could be more transmissible than the predominant delta variant, but doctors do not yet know. If it is found to be more transmissible, the precautions many residents have already been taking will become more important, he said.
That includes vaccination, masking and social distancing in areas of close contact, and testing for COVID-19 for large group events.
Swaminathan said doctors will know how transmissible the variant is soon depending on how rapidly it spreads in Africa and Europe. If it starts becoming a larger percentage of cases than the delta variant, that will become "very concerning," according to the doctor.
The variant could even peter out as others have done, Swaminathan said.
There's also not enough data yet to know whether the sickness the omicron variant causes is more or less severe than that caused by previous variants.
Swaminathan compared the variant to living in an area that experiences hurricanes — meaning one shouldn't panic or live in fear, but take precautions in case it does hit.
"I think it's often better to be more cautious, as long as you don't have unanticipated collateral damage from that preparation," he said.
U. Health isn't changing its planning based on the new variant, according to spokeswoman Kathy Wilets, but continues to deal with intensive care unit use upward of 95%.
New Utah data
The state confirmed 912 new cases on Sunday, 1,023 cases from Saturday, and 562 on Friday.
School-age children accounted for 465 of the new cases — 233 cases were ages 5-10, 104 cases were 11-13, and 128 cases were 14-17, the Utah Department of Health said.
On Monday, 524 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, a decrease of just three since the previous Monday.
Health care workers administered 20,393 vaccine doses since Friday's report, bringing total doses given to 4,122,501 in Utah.
Since vaccines first became available, the state has confirmed 41,298 "breakthrough" cases — meaning they tested positive for the disease after being fully vaccinated more than two weeks before. That is 6.9% of Utah's 594,606 cases since the start of the pandemic.
Utah has also confirmed 254 breakthrough deaths, which is 7.2% of the state's 3,508 deaths due to the coronavirus.
The latest deaths include:
- A Cache County man between the ages of 65 and 84, who was not hospitalized when he died
- A Davis County man, 25-44, hospitalized
- A Davis County man, 65-84, not hospitalized
- An Iron County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident
- A Millard County woman, 65-84, hospitalized
- A Millard County woman, older than 85, hospitalized
- Two Salt Lake County men, 65-84, both hospitalized
- Two Salt Lake County men, 25-44, both hospitalized
- A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident
- A Tooele County woman, 65-84, hospitalized
- A Tooele County man, 65-84, hospitalized
- A Utah County man, older than 85, not hospitalized
- Two Utah County men, 65-84, both hospitalized
- Two Utah County men, older than 85, long-term care facility residents
- A Washington County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident
- A Washington County man, 65-84, hospitalized
- A Weber County man, 65-84, hospitalized