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How bad will COVID-19 get in Utah this winter? Omicron variant is the ‘wild card’

Microbiologist Samuel Philips sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory.
Microbiologist Samuel Philips sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Just how bad will COVID-19 get in Utah this winter? Well, case counts may finally be headed in the right direction but the virus’ new variant, omicron, is only getting started spreading across the United States.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Just how bad will COVID-19 get in Utah this winter? Well, case counts may finally be headed in the right direction but the virus’ new variant, omicron, is only getting started spreading across the United States.

“If there wasn’t omicron lurking, I’d be really optimistic,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, told the Deseret News. “Our numbers are going down at the same time we’re headed into the winter.”

Even better, Stenehjem said, there’s hope that the new variant won’t become dominant in the United States until after the holidays in January, a calculation based on omicron cases doubling in other countries every few days.

Still, he said Utahns shouldn’t lose sight of the damage COVID-19 continues to do in the state, keeping hospital intensive care units filled to capacity and forcing many surgeries to be delayed.

“That’s pretty disheartening for a lot of us,” the doctor said. “We hope we see a break here for at least a few weeks.”

Nearly all of the nation’s COVID-19 cases are still the delta variant that first surfaced last spring and sparked surges starting in the summer, including a recent spike that saw Utah and the Intermountain West branded the nation’s hot spot for the virus.

Omicron, first seen in South Africa in late November, appears to be more transmissible but possibly less virulent than the delta variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that omicron is already responsible for nearly 3% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases.

So far, only two omicron cases have been detected in Utah, but there’s “almost certainly” more that haven’t been found through the state’s sequencing of COVID-19 test result samples, Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said.

And there’s no doubt more omicron cases are coming, he said.

When it comes to what to expect this winter, he said “omicron is definitely the wild card out there,” even as COVID-19 cases are easing downward after plateauing for some time at high levels.

Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said Utah was “stuck at this plateau for a long time,” usually seeing between 1,000 and 1,500 new COVID-19 cases daily in the state, but sometimes more than 2,000.

Now with the omicron variant along with the effects of the winter cold and flu season and holiday celebrations likely to be indoors as temperatures drop, Kim said those numbers could get worse.

“It’s kind of a toxic mix, so it does have the propensity to be bad. How bad, we don’t know. Will it be as bad as last winter? We don’t know,” he said, referring to the height of the pandemic, when there were well over 4,000 new cases in Utah a day.

Still, Utah did not see a significant jump in cases as a result of the Thanksgiving holiday, Hudachko said, likely due to booster doses of vaccine now being widely available. So far, more than 500,000 fully vaccinated Utahns have gotten an extra shot.

But he said the precautions Utahns are willing to take to slow the spread of the virus may have played a role, too.

“Hopefully, the biggest behavioral change that people would have made would have been to not go to Thanksgiving gatherings if they were sick or if they tested positive,” Hudachko said. “I think we’ve done a good job of drilling that into people’s heads.”

He worries that unlike the “one and done” dinner that marks Thanksgiving, the Christmas season usually means more celebrations over weeks. That’s a lot of opportunity for people to forget what kept them safe over Thanksgiving.

At the first sign of any symptoms, including just the sniffles, Utahns should stay away from others and get tested for COVID-19, Hudachko said, while masks make sense indoors in crowded settings regardless of vaccination status.

There’s still much that remains unknown about omicron, but new data suggests the initial two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are not as effective in preventing infection from the omicron variant, but still help keep people out of the hospital.

Booster shots, however, appear to provide increased protection against omicron.

That makes getting the COVID-19 vaccine and the booster shot even more important for Utahns, Hudachko said, including for those who’ve previously been infected with COVID-19 since they may also be more susceptible to omicron.

While Stenehjem said there’s a lot to learn from omicron about how to live with COVID-19 as the pandemic nears the start of a third year.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a bust. It’s teaching us a lot of things,” the doctor said of the latest variant, including how to deal with future mutations. He said people should be reassured that there are now vaccines and new treatments.

“We’re in a much different spot than we were with the first wave, or with alpha or delta,” Stenehjem said, adding, “We have all the tools to be successful and attenuate any kind of big omicron spread.”