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Why a doctor says Utah is in ‘a much better spot’ as far as COVID-19 is concerned

A study from Rockefeller University found 0.5% of people caught COVID-19 after being fully vaccinated.
Registered nurse Seth Christensen fills a syringe with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah is in “a good spot” right now in the battle against COVID-19, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician said Friday, as the Utah Department of Health reported another 422 new COVID-19 cases and six additional deaths from the virus.

“This is a time to be optimistic,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem told reporters during a virtual news conference by the region’s largest health care provider. Stenehjem said even though there are still very sick patients hospitalized with the deadly virus, the number of cases, positive test rates, hospitalizations and deaths are all dropping.

At the same time, the doctor said, more and more Utahns are getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

As of Friday, a total of 1,450,263 vaccine doses have been administered to Utahns, a daily increase of 40,049, the health department reported. Nearly 522,000 Utahns are now fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been at least two weeks since their final dose.

“This is a good spot for us to be currently in, here in Utah,” Stenehjem said, given that case counts are accelerating in some 30 states including Michigan. “We’re not out of the woods by any means, but man, we’re at a much better spot now than we were three months ago.”

While spring break activities could spark a new surge of COVID-19 if revelers aren’t wearing masks and social distancing, especially as more contagious variants of the virus continue to surface throughout the county, he said a rise in cases could look very different than after the winter holidays.

Some 80% of Utahns 70 or older have been vaccinated, the doctor said, “so even if we do see this rise, we may see it blunted in terms of hospitalizations and death,” the doctor said. In addition to that vulnerable population being protected, he said warmer weather means people are spending more time outside, where transmission is reduced.

Still, Stenehjem cautioned, “let’s not let our guard down.” He said there’s “quite a bit” of the virus still circulating in Utah, so the same public health recommendations including wearing masks even after the statewide mandate ends on April 10 continue to apply. “This isn’t gone.”

Even children playing outside should be wearing masks, Stenehjem said, if they’re close to others and the air is still. Utah’s first child death from the virus, reported in March, was a Salt Lake County boy between 1 and 14 years old who was hospitalized at the time of his death.

As vaccinations increase, the doctor said, Utah could “probably have a little more relaxed public health measures as we move into the summer.” He said he and his family will continue to wear masks until the science “tells us it’s safe” to give up the protection against the virus spread.

The new law ending the statewide mask mandate April 10 also does away with other restrictions as soon as the state receives 1.63 million first vaccine doses, if case counts and hospitalization rates remain low. That’s expected to be in mid-May, although K-12 mask requirements will stay in place through June.

The latest case count brings the total number of coronavirus cases in Utah since the start of the pandemic more than a year ago to 386,550. The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is now at 407 per day, department data shows, with another 5,761 Utahns taking COVID-19 tests and an additional 14,258 tests conducted since Thursday.

More than 2.4 million Utahns have taken just under 4.3 million tests, and the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 3.4% when all results are included, the method used by the state to help calculate transmission levels, and 6.9% when multiple test results from an individual in the past 90 days are excluded.

Currently, 138 are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19 boosting the total of hospitalizations in the state to 15,573.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus is 2,131 with the six deaths reported Friday. Those deaths, which include four that occurred prior to March 1, are:

• A Davis County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized.

• A Millard County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized.

• A Weber County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• A Salt Lake County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized.

• A Utah County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.