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SALT LAKE CITY — A pediatric infectious diseases doctor on Friday urged Utahns not to underestimate the effects of the omicron variant — including for children.
"Right now, we are really facing one of the most difficult times in the entire two years that we've been dealing with COVID and the impact around the world, and this is despite the fact that on average, omicron causes less severe disease," said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Primary Children's Hospital.
On Friday, Utah health officials reported 11,128 new COVID-19 cases and eight deaths. The rolling, seven-day average for new cases reached a new high of 9,827 per day, and the average rate of tests resulting as positive is 37.2%, the Utah Department of Health said.
One day earlier, the health department reported more than 12,200 new COVID-19 cases — a state record for cases confirmed in one day. Gov. Spencer Cox on Friday noted during a news conference that cases among school children increased from around 150 per day at Christmas to about 3,000 on Thursday.
Home tests aren't being reported, so the high numbers aren't giving a full picture, Pavia said during a separate news conference Friday.
"The sheer numbers of cases are leading to an absolute flood of sick patients," he added.
On Friday, 672 patients across Utah were hospitalized with COVID-19, 44 more than the previous day and another pandemic record. Intensive care units were 93.9% full, and overall ICU use was at 91.9% with coronavirus patients and others, according to the state health department.
Meanwhile, the hospital systems are understaffed due to health care workers out sick or helping ill family members.
With omicron, there are now "far more sick children," with numbers about four times higher than they were at any other time in Utah, according to Pavia. Numbers of hospitalized children are rising but not quite as fast as the numbers of cases in children, he said.
At Primary Children's Hospital, there are 15 to 22 hospitalized children with COVID-19, on average. Fewer children are being admitted to the ICU compared to when the delta variant was prominent, he said. Nearly every hospitalized child has not been vaccinated or has a condition that prevents the vaccine from working, the doctor added. Even two doses of vaccine protects children "quite well" against hospitalization, and three doses protects against infection as well as hospitalization.
Omicron is affecting kids ages 0-4 — who are unable to receive vaccines — more than other variants did, Pavia said.
The omicron variant tends to attack the upper airways in children, causing a lot of croup-like illness, he said.
"This is pretty miserable if your child has it," Pavia said, but it's not as severe as the pneumonia seen in children with the delta variant.
Because the disease is less severe, the "real flood" of cases is happening at emergency departments as children come in with various respiratory diseases, including the coronavirus.
"The result of this is that, for pediatric care, everything is stretched," Pavia said.
Hospitals are delaying surgeries considered nonessential, and it's difficult to give care for conditions like cancer or trauma. That's why the state needs to reduce the size of the surge — to be able to take care of everyone, the specialist said.
Some states that began to see a surge of omicron cases two or three weeks before Utah have already "hit the top" of their surge, Pavia said. But it's too soon to try to predict when Utah will see its cases peak. For now, residents need to "relieve the pressure" on hospital systems.
Cloth masks: Useless or helpful tool?
On Friday, Cox and other state leaders announced that residents with symptoms should assume they have COVID-19 and isolate without seeking testing, as the state is quickly running out of tests. The leaders urged residents to preserve tests for those with comorbidities or those who will be around at-risk people.
When asked for his opinion on masks, Cox said: "What we do know is cloth masks do not work at all. A cloth mask does not do anything."
Pavia criticized those remarks and called masks "one of our best tools," especially as tests run out. Masks can be viewed as "good, better and best" — cloth masks are "better than nothing," the doctor said, while other masks like K95s and surgical masks do provide better protection.
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," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement to the Associated Press.
The governor was "misleading" in casting doubt on masks as a tool to prevent the spread, Pavia said. The biggest role masks play is when someone who is sick wears one to help prevent passing the virus to others, he said.
Pavia thanked Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department and previous state epidemiologist, as well as the Salt Lake County Council, particularly Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham, for upholding a 30-day mask mandate during a Thursday meeting, after other members of the council sought to overturn it.
Pavia said the mask order will take pressure off critical functions for hospitals and first responders. By February, Utah's supply of oral antiviral medications for COVID-19 should increase.
Then, "we'll be in a much better place to take care of people," Pavia said.
Other Utah data
School-age children account for 2,797 of the new cases reported on Friday — 616 cases were ages 5-10, 500 cases were ages 11-13, and 1,681 cases were ages 14-17.
About 26,300 people have been tested for the coronavirus since Thursday's report.
Health care workers also administered 11,201 vaccine doses, bringing total doses given in Utah to 4,695,762. Now 64% of people in Utah, ages 5 and older, have been fully vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one does of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. Meanwhile, 38.2% of residents have received a booster dose of vaccine.
Among the cases confirmed Friday were 5,102 breakthrough cases, meaning people who had been fully vaccinated tested positive with COVID-19. The state also reported five new breakthrough deaths. Since vaccines became available in December 2020, there have been 114,054 breakthrough cases and 399 breakthrough deaths reported in Utah.
The new deaths reported Friday include:
- A Davis County woman, 25-44, long-term care facility resident.
- A Davis County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, 25-44, hospitalized.
- A Wasatch County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Washington County woman, 25-44, hospitalized.