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Will rapidly spreading omicron variant bring a new COVID-19 surge to Utah?

People in a long line of cars wait to be tested for COVID-19 by NOMI Health personnel in Salt Lake City.
People in a long line of cars wait to be tested for COVID-19 by NOMI Health personnel outside of the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Omicron is now believed to be the dominant COVID-19 variant in Utah, responsible for an estimated 65% of all cases — more than twice as many as just a week ago, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Monday, the state’s coronavirus.utah.gov website reported the omicron variant has been identified only 26 times in Utah through sequencing samples of COVID-19 test results. On Dec. 20, when that number was seven, omicron was said to be responsible for 30% of all cases.

The first omicron variant case in Utah was announced in early December.

It didn’t take long for the new variant to take over as the chief cause of coronavirus cases in the state. The omicron strain spreads much faster than previous versions of the virus that sent Utah case counts soaring, but, experts hope, may be milder.

“Based on testing results from both Intermountain Healthcare and the Utah Public Health Laboratory, approximately 65% of cases in Utah are likely due to the omicron variant,” Utah Department of Health spokeswoman Charla Haley told the Deseret News on Monday.

Haley said the results showing an end to the dominance of the delta variant in Utah “will be confirmed by whole genome sequencing in the coming week, but we expect most of these suspected omicron cases will be confirmed.”

The updated assessment comes as the extremely contagious omicron variant is raging through New York and some other parts of the country, blamed for record case counts, huge lines for testing and even canceled airline flights due to crew shortages.

Utah is bracing for a likely surge in cases due to the omicron variant first detected in South Africa around Thanksgiving, a few weeks after the state and much of the Mountain West was the nation’s hot spot for COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant.

“I would predict that we’re going to see a spike,” said Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. That could come by the end of the week, he said, given how much faster omicron spreads.

Kim said it can take three days or less to develop symptoms after being exposed to omicron, a much shorter incubation time than previous variants. That means Christmas travel and gatherings could have Utah dealing with a situation similar to New York soon.

“It comes in waves,” the professor said, warning Utahns not to be complacent about precautions like wearing masks and avoiding crowds. “It’s not going to hit the entire country at the same time.”

COVID-19 cases are already climbing in Utah, with more than 4,600 reported since last Thursday. Utah’s rolling seven-day average for positive tests is up to 1,158 per day after dipping below 1,000 last week.

There have been another 16 deaths from COVID-19 in the state since Thursday, bringing Utah’s death toll from the virus to 3,770,

In Summit County, COVID-19 cases reached record highs on three different days over the Christmas holiday, the Summit County Health Department tweeted Monday, urging everyone to take “basic precautions” during the week leading up to the New Year’s holiday.

“Residents and visitors are strongly advised to protect themselves and others during this spike by staying at home when sick, frequently washing hands and using hand sanitizer when in public and seeking testing when symptoms consistent with COVID-19 appear,” the county health department’s tweet said.

Wearing masks in crowded indoor settings was “strongly encouraged” as well.

But Summit County public health officials also said they remain “optimistic that while cases are on the rise, Summit County’s vaccine rates will continue to keep hospitalizations low and greatly reduce the risk of death among those who contract COVID-19.”

While just over 58% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final initial dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, 80% of Summit County residents have received the shots, the highest percentage of any local health department.

Dr. Kencee Graves, University of Utah Health associate chief medical officer, also said an omicron surge is coming. Already, Graves said, people are having to wait hours at some Utah coronavirus testing sites.

“It’s only a matter of time,” she said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of cases in the next several weeks.”

Lindsey Ostermiller, left, watches as Jared Badger receives a COVID-19 test outside of the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021. People had to wait in long lines in order to be tested.
Lindsey Ostermiller, left, watches as Jared Badger receives a COVID-19 test outside of the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 27, 2021. People had to wait in long lines in order to be tested.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

New York hospitals have seen huge increases in the number of COVID-19 patients as a result of the omicron variant, Graves said, something Utah hospitals are trying to prepare for even as the delta variant has kept many near capacity.

There’s concern that health care workers could be affected by the omicron variant just as airline crews have been, with so many sickened that hospitals will face staffing shortages, she said, adding that in South Africa, 1 in 5 health care workers got the virus.

Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention slashed the recommended quarantine time from 10 to five days for those who test positive for the virus but aren’t showing symptoms to “ensure people can safely continue their daily lives.”

Masks should be worn for an additional five days after leaving isolation, the CDC said.

Also, anyone exposed to the virus should quarantine for five days if they haven’t been vaccinated or haven’t yet received a booster shot, the agency said, while those who’ve gotten a booster shot should mask for 10 days.