SALT LAKE CITY — Utah could face a new surge in COVID-19 cases in Utah if everyone doesn’t continue to wear masks, social distance and take other public health precautions even after receiving both vaccine doses, a doctor warned Friday.
“As we see the vaccine and growing immunity have an impact, the thing that could absolutely turn that around and lead to a spike in cases again is if everyone relaxes,” Dr. Mark Briesacher, Intermountain Healthcare chief physician executive, said during a virtual news conference.
His warning came as the Utah Department of Health reported 2,649 new COVID-19 cases and 24 additional deaths. Another 12,574 people in Utah have been tested for the virus since Thursday, and the rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 1,860 per day and 19% for percent of positive laboratory tests.
Although Briesacher said Utah appears to be moving in the right direction after experiencing a post-holiday climb in cases, he acknowledged the toll the virus continues to take. On Thursday, 30 deaths from COVID-19 in Utah were reported, tying a grim record set in mid-December.
“When I saw that number, my heart just sank. I thought we would never see that number again. It’s just a reminder how dangerous this is,” the doctor said, adding that the 30 deaths had an impact on likely thousands of family members and friends.
Utah’s “positive trend,” which includes a decrease in hospitalizations compared to after Christmas and New Year’s, could look even better by late February or early March as more high-risk Utahns such as those at least 70 years old get vaccinated, Briesacher said — but only if the public health precautions are kept up.
Vaccinations began in Utah in mid-December, with front-line hospital health care workers and has continued with others in the health care industry, emergency services personnel, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff, school teachers and staff, and now all Utahns 70 and older.
There are “significant worries,” Briesacher said, about Gov. Spencer Cox declaring that second doses of vaccines only will be reserved for a week after they are due to be administered before being “repurposed into first doses.” Depending on the vaccine manufacturer, second doses are required 21 or 28 days after the first.
“What we do not want to experience is a lot of people who are partially immune or somewhat immune to this virus,” the doctor said, which could be a boost to “new, dangerous mutations” of the virus. A faster-spreading variant from Britain has already been identified in Utah, but more are expected.
Briesacher said for every 20 people who receive a first dose, only half of them are protected from contracting COVID-19. Even after the second dose, the vaccine’s 95% efficacy rate means one of those 20 people could still catch the virus. It’s unclear whether someone who’s been vaccinated can still spread the virus.
More than 207,000 vaccine doses have been administered in Utah, an increase of 13,350 since Thursday.
Utah currently has 488 people hospitalized with COVID-19. A total of 1,571 Utahns have died from the virus since the pandemic began last March. Five of the 24 deaths reported Friday occurred before the end of 2020, the health department said. The latest fatalities are:
- A Box Elder County man, older than 85, who was hospitalized at time of death.
- A Box Elder County man and a woman, both between 65 and 84, both hospitalized at time of death.
- Two Cache County men older than 85, both hospitalized at time of death.
- An Iron County woman and a man, both between 65 and 84, both hospitalized at time of death.
- A Sanpete County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
- Three Salt Lake County men between 65 and 84, all hospitalized at time of death.
- Two Salt Lake County women older than 85, both long-term care facility residents.
- A Salt Lake County woman older than 85, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Salt Lake County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County man, 45-64, not hospitalized.
- Three Salt Lake County women between 45 and 64, all hospitalized.
- A Utah County man, older than 85, not hospitalized.
- Two Utah County men between 65 and 84, one a long-term care facility resident and the other hospitalized at time of death.
- A Utah County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
- A Weber County man, 65-84, hospitalized.