SALT LAKE CITY — People still need to be cautious about interacting with others even after being fully vaccinated, University of Utah Health doctors advised Tuesday, as the state reported another 481 new COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths from the virus.
“It’s still not recommended that you indulge in high-risk behavior because nothing is 100%. There are variants,” Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, University of Utah Health Division of Infectious Diseases chief, told reporters during a virtual news conference.
He said there are still questions about whether someone who is fully vaccinated — at least two weeks after receiving either both doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson — can still transmit the coronavirus despite not having symptoms.
The likelihood of that happening “is lower, but we don’t know that it’s zero,” Swaminathan said, warning that exposing those with cancer or other medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the virus puts them at risk whether or not they are vaccinated themselves.
“Just because you’re vaccinated, with the level of transmission we’re having now, I would not be going to a bar for example. Or a restaurant with large numbers of people operating at high capacity,” he said, or to a movie theater without a mask.
While Texas and a number of other states have done away with restrictions intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, the Utah Legislature passed a bill lifting the statewide mask mandate on April 10, and other restrictions as soon as benchmarks for case counts, hospitalization rates and vaccinations are met.
“Relaxing restrictions should really be based on risk level,” Swaminathan said. Any state not tying those decisions to a decline in the danger of the virus spread “is not scientific. It’s not rational and it’s bound to lead to bad outcomes.”
The doctor said he now sees almost universal mask compliance in Salt Lake stores, after initially crossing some off his shopping list because he “was sure” he would run into customers unwilling to wear a mask.
“There was nothing that the people who worked there could do. People who are earning $10 an hour are not going to risk getting into a fight with some recalcitrant person who refuses to wear a mask,” he said, putting workers “in a very, very difficult position if they don’t have the backing of the state and the police and the government.”
That situation, Swaminathan said, “is just completely unfair to these people who have been putting their life on the line so you can have a hamburger, or buy a shirt or groceries.”
He said he was only comfortable sitting without a mask at the news conference near a colleague, Dr. Carlos Gomez, an assistant professor in the division of infectious diseases, because they had both been vaccinated.
Gomez said there should be “a reward for people who get vaccinated, who do the right thing,” because they’re helping not just protect themselves but also their communities. Still, he said, it will take a further drop in case numbers along with more Utahns getting the shots before they should ease up on public health measures.
“It is in our patients’ hands to get this virus under control as soon as possible,” Gomez said. Those who hesitate to get vaccinated, he said, “can be the reservoir for mutants (of the virus) and they can actually sustain the transmission going into the fall of 2021, when we can see a peak.”
Swaminathan compared new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week that say fully vaccinated Americans can safely gather together indoors in small groups without wearing masks or social distancing to what family members living together have already been doing.
With Tuesday’s new numbers, the state has now reached 379,081 cases and 2,032 lives lost, according to the Utah Department of Health. At the same time, a total of 1,027,073 COVID-19 vaccines have been administered in the state, a daily increase of 16,373.
Utah’s vaccine eligibility list is set to open to all adults April 1. Currently, Utahns 50 and older and those with specified medical conditions are on the list, as well as health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staffs, and K-12 teachers and school staffs.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 492 per day, with 5,476 Utahns tested since Monday. The rolling seven-day average for the percent positivity is 4.1% when all test results are considered, now the method used by the state, and 8.3% when multiple tests by an individual over the past 90 days are excluded.
Utah hospitals have 171 COVID-19 patients and 15,167 people have been hospitalized in the state since the start of the pandemic a year ago. The five deaths from the virus reported Tuesday are:
- A Washington County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
- A Utah County woman, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Summit County man, older than 85, not hospitalized.
- A Washington County man, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.