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SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Health on Friday announced it is adjusting the risk assessment process for COVID-19 medical treatments, citing a need to prioritize access to some treatments that are in "extremely limited supplies."
Race and ethnicity, gender, pregnant women, and some immunocompromised individuals were removed from the COVID-19 risk factor calculator. Unvaccinated people 75 and older, as well as people with severe immunocompromising conditions, like obesity and diabetes, would be given greater priority, according to the health department.
Health officials said the 75 and older unvaccinated group aligns with National Institutes of Health recommendations. Meanwhile, past post-exposure prevention tactics for people in long-term care facilities were found to be ineffective against the omicron variant.
There are some symptoms, however, such as shortness of breath and fever, getting prioritized. Treatments for the coronavirus include monoclonal antibody therapy and antiviral medications.
"While these treatments are promising for people at highest risk of hospitalization, the supply of these treatments is scarce. Vaccination, including booster doses, remains the best path forward out of the pandemic," Dr. Michelle Hofmann, health department deputy director, said in a statement. "All of us must do our part to help see our state through this crisis."
As for some of the groups removed from the calculations, health officials said they planned other tactics aimed at treating COVID-19 cases outside of hospitals. All immunocompromised people and pregnant women were prioritized in the previous risk factor calculator, but some lower-risk immunocompromised conditions won't qualify for automatic treatment because the statistics no longer show people in those groups are at the highest risk.
Gender was removed because the recent data found less correlation between gender and risk of hospitalization. Males were previously believed to be at higher risk for hospitalization.
Meanwhile, officials said they are looking to work with communities of color to "improve access to treatments by placing medications in locations easily accessed by these populations and working to connect members of these communities with available treatments."
A national cable television host criticized the state for including race and ethnicity as risk factors earlier this month. However, Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said race and ethnicity never resulted in automatic treatment.
The new guidelines, he said, had nothing to do with the scrutiny, but were adopted to ensure compliance with federal law.
"We are committed to making sure our most vulnerable and at-risk populations receive access to these important treatments," Nate Checketts, executive director of the health department, said. "We remain committed to a spirit of collaboration, transparency, and flexibility while addressing the impacts of the pandemic."
The changes actually resulted from an analysis of recent Intermountain Healthcare patient data conducted by the Scarce Resources Subcommittee of the Utah Crisis Standards of Care Workgroup. The subcommittee reviewed information from 188,456 COVID-19 cases in Utah, and 6,579 resulting hospitalizations.
It found that people who experience shortness of breath are 2.3 times more likely to be hospitalized. Fever results in a 1.7 times greater chance, and diarrhea leads to a 1.3 times greater chance of hospitalization. People experiencing obesity and diabetes are at higher risk, and that risk increases in people with multiple chronic diseases.
They also found that Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders are 2.3 times more likely to be hospitalized than non-Hispanic white people in Utah. All other races and ethnicities ranged between 1.4 times and 1.8 times the risk.
Vaccines decreased the likelihood of hospitalization. Partially vaccinated people are 1.6 times less likely than unvaccinated people to be hospitalized for COVID-19, while fully vaccinated people are 2.1 times less likely and boosted Utahns are 5 times less likely.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study earlier Friday that also found that COVID-19 booster shots help to significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization during the ongoing omicron surge.