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SALT LAKE CITY — Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Utah Department of Health have shortened the recommended isolation time for those who test positive for COVID-19 to five days, Dr. Angela Dunn said she worries that could cause cases to "skyrocket."
"Nothing has changed in the science, nothing has changed in the virus. The reason this was done was to keep the economy open and our country open and allow people to go to work," Dunn, executive director at the Salt Lake County Health Department, told the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday.
For the strongest protection against spreading the disease, people who test positive should still isolate for 10 days, she said.
If people choose to follow the new five-day isolation, they should wear masks for the next five days around others, including those of the same household, Dunn added.
The infection, including the omicron variant of disease, remains active between days five through 10, Dunn said.
"The reason why this makes me so nervous is that people are still infectious for those next five days, and I'm afraid people are going to isolate for five days and then go about their business, and we're just going to skyrocket," she said.
"I have a pit in my stomach about what's to come."
Even if recreating outside — for example at a ski resort — people who tested positive for coronavirus fewer than 10 days ago should wear a mask.
If outside at a ski resort, you should still wear a mask, she said.
Case counts in Salt Lake County are starting to rise drastically, according to Dunn. On Dec. 26, the county had an average of 460 new cases per day. On Tuesday, that number had risen to 1,450.
"Compared to where we were (in winter 2020), we've surpassed our peak," Dunn said.
The majority of current cases hail from the east side of Salt Lake City, which Dunn says happened at the beginning of the pandemic, as well.
"Most of our cases are unvaccinated," she said. "Omiron is certainly causing more breakthroughs than delta, but vaccination is still the No.1 protector against severe disease. But that includes getting a booster."
To be considered protected, instead of "fully vaccinated," the new term is "up to date on vaccination," Dunn said, meaning a person received their original dose or doses, as well as a booster shot (if their original doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines were more than six months ago, or their Johnson and Johnson dose was more than two months ago). In Salt Lake County, 65% of eligible adults have not received a booster, she said.
"Therefore, we're kind of back to where we were six months ago in terms of 65% of our population is not protected," Dunn told the council.
On Tuesday, intensive care units across Salt Lake County were 89% full, and 34% of patients in ICUs were COVID-19 patients. Nine children were hospitalized due to COVID-19 at Primary Children's Hospital, which reported an ICU capacity at about 63%.
"So they're doing well in terms of beds, but their staffing is beginning to be very limited because staff are out due to COVID and caring for people who have COVID," Dunn said.
It takes another one to two weeks to see more hospitalizations after a surge in cases, she noted.
"We're thinking that the huge surge in omicron cases is because omicron causes more breakthrough than delta, but if you're unvaccinated, the risk of being hospitalized due to delta is the same as omicron. So we're still going to get a surge in our hospitalizations because we have so many people unprotected from vaccine," the former state epidemiologist said.
Most of the county's current hospitalizations are patients from West Valley City, Riverton and Herriman, according to Dunn. Herriman has "really high case rates and high hospitalization rates," she said. The city has high hospitalization rates in all adult age groups except for those ages 30-39, she said, and that age group makes up much of the population of Herriman.
"It's really this young adult population that is accounting for the cases and the hospitalizations," she said.
This story will be updated.