Omicron symptoms may be just like the last highly contagious strain of COVID-19, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases specialist said Thursday, predicting the new variant will soon be responsible for all of Utah’s skyrocketing number of cases.
Still, there was some hope that the new variant means the deadly virus is loosening its grip on the state from Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who tweeted omicron may be the beginning of the end of the pandemic that’s heading into a third year.
During a virtual news conference by the region’s largest health care provider, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem told reporters that when it comes to COVID-19 symptoms, “we haven’t seen any major differences with omicron versus delta.”
Symptoms range from the sniffles to serious illness, Stenehjem said.
“Anything from a common cold symptom, so a runny nose, nasal congestion, that certainly could be COVID-19 caused by omicron,” he said, as well as “high fevers, a cough and shortness of breath” that may send patients to the intensive care unit.
Because the symptoms mirror other infections circulating this winter, including the common cold, influenza and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, “it’s really challenging right now,” Stenehjem said.
“So it’s just so important if you have any sign or symptom of a respiratory infection, regardless of how mild it is, you need to get tested for COVID-19,” the doctor said, as the even more transmissible variant sweeps through the state.
Utah saw case counts shoot up to more than 3,300 on Wednesday, the highest since early January and nearing the daily record of more than 4,700 cases set just over a year ago. On Thursday, 3,563 new cases were reported by the Utah Department of Health.
Those numbers are anticipated to keep going up, Stenehjem said, citing sharp spikes seen in the United Kingdom and other parts of the world since the omicron variant was first identified in South Africa in late November before showing up in Utah soon after.
While there is what he termed anecdotal data coming from other countries suggesting the new variant causes milder illness, “there are still plenty of people that have gotten severely ill with omicron as well, especially those who are older or immunocompromised.”
It’s too early to say omicron is a sign that COVID-19 is mutating into a less severe disease, maybe more like the common cold, Stenehjem said, blaming the variant’s rapid spread on its ability to evade immunity from vaccines or previous infection.
Booster shots, expected to soon be available to 12- to 15-year-olds, appear to offer the best protection against omicron, he said. Vaccines are available to any Utahn 5 and older but a booster following the initial shots have been available only to those at least 16 years old.
Some types of monoclonal antibody treatments used in the early stages of COVID-19 are not effective against omicron, the doctor said, so providers are working with the state to distribute the limited supplies of those that do work and prioritize patients.
Other treatments, such as antiviral pills, are also in short supply, Stenehjem said.
Hopefully, he said, the surge in cases driven by omicron and holiday gatherings will turn out to be “a small blip” but it will be a week or so before hospitals see the full impact. Already, hospital ICUs are about 93% full, down slightly since being at capacity before Christmas.
“Don’t let this give us false hope,” the doctor said of hospitalization numbers.
Even if omicron does end up being milder than the delta variant behind making Utah and other intermountain states the nation’s COVID-19 hot spot last month, the sheer number of new cases expected means hospitals will still be jammed, he said.
Could the end of the pandemic be near?
But Utah’s governor offered an upbeat assessment of omicron’s impact on the state in a series of tweets from his personal account Thursday.
“The next few weeks may be a little bumpy, but we have more tools than ever before to protect ourselves!” he tweeted after citing a number of “positive ways” omicron differs from what he called “the more dangerous” delta variant.
“Vaccines (especially boosters) remain the best way to protect against all variants. N95 masks can also help add a layer of protection. Avoid large crowds esp if vulnerable. Please stay home if you feel sick. Testing sites will be carrying heavy loads, so please be patient.”
The governor closed by suggesting the end of the pandemic may be in sight.
“The best news is that several experts now believe this wave will help us move from pandemic to endemic phase and get things back to normal. We remain forever indebted to our amazing healthcare workers who continue to give everything to save lives. Here’s to a happy New Year,” Cox tweeted.
Stenehjem also said there’s room for some optimism, especially if Utahns “double down” on some of the same mitigation measures recommended throughout the pandemic by wearing masks and avoiding others.
That’s particularly important for children returning to school after the holiday break, he said, urging them to wear good quality, well-fitting masks and practice social distancing. Schools should ventilate classrooms by opening windows despite the cold, Stenehjem said.
“We know what works. We’ve just got to go out and do it,” he said. The doctor agreed with the governor that omicron will soon take over from the delta variant, becoming responsible for 100% of all cases in the state within weeks.
Despite case counts similar to those seen at the peak of the pandemic last winter, Stenehjem said, “people can get into this very doomsday mindset, but where we are now is much, much different than where we were.”
Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers
Thursday’s jump to 3,563 new COVID-19 cases comes after the state health department upped the percentage of cases estimated to be caused by omicron from around 65% to more than 70%.
Utah’s rolling seven-day average for positive tests is now at 1,898 per day, and the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity is 12.4% when all test results are included and 8.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
More people were tested in Utah for the deadly virus in the past day than got vaccinated. There were 14,378 vaccine doses given since Wednesday while 15,419 people were tested and 28,777 tests administered in the state.
Currently, 436 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. An additional seven people have died from the virus, bringing the state’s COVID-19 death toll to 3,787, after a death reported Wednesday of a Tooele County man, between 45 and 64, was removed.
The state health department will not update numbers again until next week due to the New Year’s holiday. The deaths reported Thursday are:
- A Sanpete County woman, between 25 and 44, not hospitalized at time of death.
- A Washington County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized at time of death.
- A Salt Lake County man, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Salt Lake County woman, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Weber County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.
- A Utah County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
- An Iron County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.