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SALT LAKE CITY — Yes, many Utahns already are getting COVID-19 even if they're vaccinated and boosted against the virus, thanks to the incredibly transmissible omicron variant surging through the state and sending Thursday's cases soaring to nearly 13,000.
But no, health experts say, that doesn't mean Utahns should give up protecting themselves and others from COVID-19 by staying up-to-date on their shots, wearing masks and avoiding crowds — even if most people likely will eventually contract the virus.
"Our advice is for people to take actions, like getting vaccinated and boosted or wearing masks in public places, to prevent themselves from getting COVID-19," Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said, although the agency doesn't have a position on whether most Utahns will be infected with omicron.
Earlier this week, though, Biden administration officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, said most people will get the virus.
"Virtually everybody is going to wind up getting exposed and likely get infected. But if you're vaccinated and if you're boosted, the chances of you getting sick are very, very low," Fauci said during a White House news conference Wednesday,
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, agreed.
"Eventually, most of us will end up getting omicron because it's so infectious, even if we do all of the right things," Kim said, adding someone with omicron is expected to infect 10 other people, making it "one of the infectious airborne diseases that we know of," nearly as contagious as measles.
At the same time, he said omicron appears to be milder than previous variants, so those infected "are more likely to go about their daily business even though they're shedding virus, either because they're asymptomatic or they have such mild disease, combined with the fact we have basically very little mitigation."
The state's health care systems are being overwhelmed with omicron cases, since the sheer numbers of infections may translate into just as many if not more hospitalizations and possibly deaths as in previous surges of more virulent variants like delta. The variant first showed up in Utah about six weeks ago.
So while some might see omicron as a sign that it's time to let down their guard and suffer through a bout of omicron to speed up an end to the pandemic, the professor warned that's a bad idea. Not only are hospitals struggling, COVID-19 treatments like monoclonal antibodies are so scarce, they're being rationed.
Virtually everybody is going to wind up getting exposed and likely get infected. But if you're vaccinated and if you're boosted, the chances of you getting sick are very, very low.
–Dr. Anthony Fauci
"This is a tricky message to send out because here's the thing. If everybody does relax and go out there, yeah, we're going to start peaking, peaking, peaking," Kim said, but at a big cost to the level of health care that can be provided.
He said the possibility of hospitals facing a "collapse is not an exaggeration, the way they're being stressed."
Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should still be taking steps to avoid the virus, including wearing high-quality masks and avoiding crowds and other situations where the virus may be spreading, Kim said, "because there's still that chance" of getting seriously ill.
Being fully vaccinated and then getting a booster shot is seen as offering the most protection against hospitalization and death. In Salt Lake County, cases are split between the vaccinated and unvaccinated, but just 10% of those infected have been boosted.
The suggestion that most people will eventually catch omicron "doesn't change what we can do," Kim said.
The issue of just how widespread the latest surge may turn out to be came up Tuesday during a Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee hearing addressing the new variants.
"I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is that most people are going to get COVID," the acting FDA commissioner, Janet Woodcock, told the committee in response to the suggestion the administration's pandemic responses were disruptive at this point.
"What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function and transportation and other essential services are not disrupted while this happens," she said. "After that will be a good time to reassess how we're approaching this pandemic."
A day later, Fauci, President Joe Biden's top medical adviser, told reporters that when the FDA commissioner said most people ultimately would get omicron, she wasn't saying they would be sick, citing the effectiveness of vaccinations and booster shots in preventing hospitalizations and deaths.
But even once omicron cases peak, Fauci said, COVID-19 will still be around.
"We're not going to eradicate this; we've only done that with smallpox. We're not going to eliminate that; that only happens with massive vaccination programs like we did with measles and with vaccines. But we ultimately will control it," he said, referring to keeping infections at a low level.
Thursday, the 12,990 new cases reported by the state health department came a day after the state hit the 10,000 mark for daily cases for the first time. The omicron surge in the new year has eclipsed what had been the worst of the pandemic, when daily case counts neared 5,000 last winter.
The state's seven-day rolling average for positive tests has reached 9,564 per day, and the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 36.5% when all results are counted and 25.2% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded. The state's numbers do not include results from home test kits.
The state's death toll from the virus is closing in on 4,000 lives lost with the seven additional deaths reported Thursday. Currently, there are 638 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, and 182 of them are in intensive care units.