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Utah confirms lowest daily COVID-19 case count since May, but 1st case of Brazilian variant reported

Workers take down information from residents as they receive COVID-19 tests at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. Experts suggest the US has seen a plateau in COVID-19 case numbers. This might be a problem
Workers take down information from residents as they receive COVID-19 tests at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021. On Monday, Utah confirmed its lowest daily coronavirus increase since May.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah health officials on Monday reported the state’s lowest number of new cases confirmed in a day since last May.

The Beehive State reported just 159 new COVID-19 cases and no additional deaths. Now, 381,788 people have tested positive for the disease in the state since the pandemic began out of 2.33 million people tested.

“It’s great if we see declining case counts. Hopefully that means that people have been taking precautions, and mask-wearing is more of the norm,” said Jenny Johnson, spokeswoman with the Utah Department of Health.

The last time the state saw fewer than 200 new cases in a single day occurred on May 27, when 86 cases were confirmed.

While the numbers bring optimism, Utah also reported its first case of the more-contagious COVID-19 variant that first cropped up in South America on Monday.

The variant called P.1 was first identified in early January in travelers from Brazil, who were screened for the coronavirus at an airport, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fifty-four cases of the variant have so far been confirmed in the U.S. since the end of January, including Utah’s case.

Federal health officials say P.1 contains mutations that could prevent antibodies from detecting the virus. The variant also appears to spread faster and more easily than others, according to the CDC.

Johnson said officials do not know exactly when the variant case occurred in the state, as it takes time to perform virus sequencing. While only one case has been confirmed, Utah likely has more as only a small percentage of cases undergo sequencing, she said.

If someone has traveled to Brazil or another high-risk area, they get prioritized for virus sampling.

“But we know we’re going to miss people, just like we know there’s probably more people with COVID in our state and in our country than whatever our numbers actually show,” Johnson said.

“It’s here. The variants have been here. We know that we have more than what our numbers probably show, especially because they spread so easily,” she said.

It’s also too soon to know if the variant has caused more serious illness in the state, Johnson noted.

But lower case counts overall mean variants won’t spread as easily. The decrease in cases combined with vaccine availability is “really hopeful,” Johnson said.

Health officials don’t believe vaccines have made a large impact yet on decreasing case counts, as only 18% of the state’s population so far has received them. But vaccines have contributed to a downward trend in cases in those 75 and older who are at higher risk for hospitalization and death.

Vaccines are also believed to work against variants of the disease.

That’s one reason why public health officials are encouraging everyone who’s eligible to get vaccinated “as quickly as possible,” even those who are young and without comorbidities, according to Johnson.

Now, those who can get vaccinated need to do so to protect those who can’t — children, Johnson said, to stop variants of COVID-19 from mutating and spreading.

“The more people that are protected, the less and less chance there is for that variant to spread, and when that happens, it dies off essentially,” she said.

Measures like mask-wearing, physical distancing and staying home if you have symptoms also remain important, Johnson said.

“Those are all things that protect you from the virus, whether it’s the variant or the original strain, it doesn’t matter. Those things work,” she said.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 457 per day, and 2,333 more Utahns have taken COVID-19 tests since Sunday. A total of 4,144 tests were administered. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests at 4.1% when all test results are included and 8% when multiple tests by an individual over the past 90 days are excluded.

Utah has vaccinated more than 1.154 million people.

Vaccines will become available to everyone age 16 and older on Wednesday. Vaccine providers can be found on coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine or vaccinefinder.org.