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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is quickly running out of COVID-19 tests after giving nearly 50,000 tests per day while the omicron variant surges through the state, Gov. Spencer Cox said Friday.
He said Utah failed to receive tests it had ordered as they are now on back order. Over the next week or two, the state will receive hundreds of thousands of those tests.
"But in the meantime, until those tests come, we have to look at things a little differently," Cox said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
Utah again smashed its record number of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday as health officials reported 12,990. The state has also confirmed record hospitalizations and percent positivity rates this week.
Dr. Leisha Nolen, state epidemiologist, said residents should assume they have COVID-19 if they have symptoms and stay home and away from others for five days while symptomatic. The state is also pausing its school Test to Stay program, she said.
Testing should be reserved for people experiencing comorbidities or who plan to visit someone at high risk, if they contract the coronavirus, according to Nolen.
That announcement prompted a worried tweet from Dr. Angela Dunn, Salt Lake County's executive health director who once held Nolen's job.
"I am skeptical about the utility of case counting for the next couple of weeks. We have maxed out testing, and now are telling symptomatic people to not get tested. Our cases will seemingly plateau, but that is just because we can't test any more people," Dunn said.
Cases rising rapidly
Since Christmas Day — when omicron overtook delta — average daily case counts have risen from about 1,200 a day to more than 9,500, the governor noted. The percent of daily tests that were positive also increased from 13.2% to 36.5%.
Hospitalized cases rose from 434 on Christmas to 638 on Thursday, and cases among school children increased from around 150 per day at Christmas to about 3,000 on Thursday, Cox added.
On Friday, the Utah Senate announced that Senate President Stuart Adams has tested positive for COVID-19.
"President Adams began to not feel well with flu-like symptoms Wednesday night. The next day, he tested positive for COVID. He is following the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommended five-day quarantine period, which will conclude on Monday. (Adams) is already feeling much better and will be ready to start the session on Tuesday," Aundrea Peterson, Senate deputy chief of staff, said in a statement.
Last week, health officials in Salt Lake and Summit counties issued countywide mask mandates to help slow the spread of the virus. Then earlier this week, the governor announced employees at state buildings in those counties are exempt from such mask mandates. On Thursday, Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council sought to overturn the mask order, but the motion failed.
Amid partisan tension over the mandate, council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham, a Republican, said she would work next week with state leaders to come up with a solution amid high countywide spread of COVID-19. Utah Legislature leaders, who begin their annual legislative session on Tuesday, have not said whether they will address the mandates.
When asked about masks Friday, Cox said: "What we do know is cloth masks do not work at all. A cloth mask does not do anything."
The CDC released more guidance Friday stating that all masks, if fitted properly, provide some protection from the COVID-19 virus and encouraged people to consider using N95 or KN95 masks.
"Our main message continues to be that any mask is better than no mask," Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokeswoman, said in a statement to the Associated Press.
The CDC guidance says, "Masks are made to contain droplets and particles you breathe, cough, or sneeze out. If they fit closely to the face, they can also provide you some protection from particles spread by others, including the virus that causes COVID-19."
"Whatever product you choose, it should provide a good fit (i.e., fitting closely on the face without any gaps along the edges or around the nose) and be comfortable enough when worn properly (covering your nose and mouth) so that you can keep it on when you need to."
The CDC also recommended wearing a disposable mask under a cloth mask among its suggestions for better fit and extra protection with the two types of masks.
Most experts are now looking at disposable surgical masks instead, Cox said, but he believes they probably don't work as well against omicron as they did with past variants.
He said he believes N95 masks are the only effective way to limit the spread of omicron, but it depends how they're worn.
"Every time you're in a room and you see someone kind of pull down their mask to catch their breath, now we have viral spread," Cox said. "We all have to make these calculations. If you are vaxxed and you are boosted and you are a healthy person, you make a decision based on that information."
But if you're at risk due to the disease or around those at risk, "then an N95 mask could make a significant difference and really help you," the governor said.
He noted that the pandemic has done something "very cruel" in preventing people from being close to each other and creating tension.
"Human beings need proximity. We need to be close to each other, we need to come together," Cox said.
That lack of that has caused "strain" on people, he added.
We need more than ever to come together, we have to find ways to connect. We have to give grace for people.
–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox
"There will be people hospitalized. There will be people (who) die from omicron. … We need more than ever to come together, we have to find ways to connect. We have to give grace for people. People are reacting differently. We fall into our tribes where we're back having these alpha fights," Cox said.
"I think most Utahns are tired of it, I think most Utahns understand that need for proximity, that need for care, that need for love."
The governor said he's more optimistic than he's been during the pandemic that omicron's rapid spread "will help us move on, that that will give us the type of immunity we've needed all along."
Testing is not preventing the spread, Nolen said.
"If you have symptoms, you most likely have COVID, so the benefit of getting that test is really decreased," she added.
Cox noted that residents typically don't get tested for other viruses. Testing was important with other variants that had slower incubation periods, Cox said, and testing could help identify those who had been exposed to cases. But omicron is "much, much more transmissible" and difficult to contain.
By the time someone gets tested, "they've already infected a whole bunch of people who have already infected a whole bunch of people," making contact tracing "virtually impossible," Cox said.
Data shows omicron is 25% less severe than delta, although "we also have so much more of it," Cox added. At the same time, more people are vaccinated — nearly 70% of people ages 12 and older — and many residents have had previous infections.
Cox said that according to hospital leaders across the state, most of the coronavirus patients in intensive care units remain there longer with the delta variant than with the omicron variant.
On a positive note, Cox said vaccines and booster shots are protective against serious disease due to the omicron variant. Those who are vaccinated and boosted are going to the hospital in much smaller numbers than those who aren't, he said.
Test to Stay suspended
Utah State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson emphasized that teachers across the state are "exhausted" as they continue to deal with rapid case increases. One school district recently saw 1 out of 6 of its employees out for different reasons at the same time.
When schools experience high COVID-19 case counts and transmission, she said it creates situations for students "where they can no longer really learn." It stresses families, teachers and students, Dickson said.
Remote learning "isn't something we want to do in a permanent way," but the state has tools to put remote learning in place, she added.
Giving schools a chance to "pause and reset" can slow transmission and help schools get back in a safe environment, according to Dickson.
"This pandemic has proven to be anything but predictable, and we all recognize that we need to be very flexible and adaptable as we move through this current wave," said Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville.
He said state legislators agree the right approach to deal with the surge over the next two months is for people to assume they have COVID-19 if they have symptoms, stay home for five days, and then wear masks for the next five days.
He urged people to save tests for people who are immunocompromised.
During the legislative session, Wilson said leaders will look at what to do with the Test to Stay program, which was created when the disease was much more severe.
"We're trying to be as nimble as possible in order to address the current needs of the state of Utah," he added.