Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns kept track of daily COVID-19 statistics for months and months, to better understand the virus and its spread.
And while the Utah Department of Health and Human Services is still providing weekly updates on case numbers, hospitalizations, deaths and other stats, much of that data is painting a less accurate picture of COVID-19 cases in the community than it used to. Keeping an eye on the virus has become a less important marker for community health.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said increased levels of immunity, both from natural immunity and vaccinations, have led to fewer hospitalizations, which makes using hospitalization numbers a less accurate estimate of community spread.
"We probably have a lot more cases than we even suspect, based on our hospital numbers, because people don't have to go to the hospital as much. So we're getting to the point where this is closer to what we're used to for respiratory illnesses," Nolen said.
Statistics can still show important trends, however. And for those who do want to keep an eye on COVID-19 levels, Nolen said syndromic surveillance numbers, which is a look at emergency room visits, percent positivity and wastewater levels are probably the best statistics to consider — although they only provide a general trend, not something that can be compared year over year.
'Not the most important thing'
This year, there are better statistics to be watching than COVID-19 case numbers, when it comes to staying healthy.
Nolen said precautions taken over the last few years because of the pandemic are leading to a worse year for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the flu and the common cold.
"I think watching the COVID levels is not the most important thing now because we have lots of things circulating. … It's not just COVID that I want to avoid," Nolen said.
The pediatrician and disease investigator said, right now, COVID-19, RSV, the flu and colds are making their way through the community. And because people were being more health conscious over the last year, she said people have less immunity to these other diseases and they are expected to hit Utahns harder.
"Our bodies haven't had to fight off any of those colds for two years now," she said.
Specifically, Nolen said this year is a tough year for RSV, after a few light seasons where most children were not exposed to it.
She encourages washing hands, covering coughs, staying home when you are sick and getting updated COVID-19 boosters and flu vaccines.
"(As) Americans, we feel like it is our duty to go to work even if we're feeling miserable, and now it should be our duty not to go to work when we feel miserable because we just shouldn't be that person who spreads it across the whole office," Nolen said.
She said everyone doesn't need to pull out their masks again, but if you are going to be in a large crowd or want to avoid getting sick, masks can be a good option to protect people from disease spread in general.
"We know the masks did really well preventing flu the last two years. … I think most of us can say we've had the least number of colds in our whole lives the last two years, and that's because of the masks," Nolen said.
COVID-19 trending upward
Because COVID-19 case numbers are not reported the way they were last year, partly because of home testing kits, it makes it hard to compare where the state sits with the disease. But trends shown through the numbers reported by the health department are accurate, and Nolen said it is reasonable to watch those.
"They all tell you the direction things are going, they just don't tell you how bad it is compared to other times," Nolen said.
Nolen said COVID-19 numbers are currently trending up, looking at emergency room visits, which are at 3.13% — up from around 1.5% in the first half of October; wastewater testing, which shows 79.4% of sites have elevated COVID-19 numbers; and the percentage of people testing positive, which is almost 17%.
"We definitely are in that upswing," Nolen said.
Utah's health department is making sure it provides tests for people with low resources, but outside of that the department is not stepping up its COVID-19 response in preparation for the winter this year.
Nolen encouraged people to have home tests available, because when you need it, that's not the time to be running to the store to pick one up. Also, COVID-19 tests from last year may have expired, but Nolen said to check online before tossing those since some of the expiration dates have been extended thanks to additional testing.
The gradually upward COVID-19 trend stretches nationwide, but the United States does not seem to be following an outbreak in Europe from about a month ago. Nolen said the number of variants throughout the world is higher, and they aren't seeing one prominent variant spreading widely.
The outbreak in Europe could have been a result of Oktoberfest, Nolan said, and as the holiday season arrives, diseases could spread further in the United States and Utah, as well.
"Anything that brings a lot of people together, we know that definitely increases the risk of transmitting things. … If you're sick, don't go and give it to your family. Don't take COVID to Thanksgiving, or flu, or RSV. I think it's a time to really think about how you're feeling so you don't spread it to others," she said.
A disease that is mild for an adult could affect kids and elderly people differently, so Nolen said people should be paying attention to how they feel and careful to not spread sickness to people who could be more vulnerable to it.