COVID-19 cases are going up among younger Utahns as the highly contagious delta variant of the virus continues to spread among a population where less than half of all residents have had even one dose of vaccine, University of Utah Health physicians warned Tuesday.
“That same population who is less likely to get vaccinated has been getting more COVID-19,” Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer of the Salt Lake City-based University of Utah Health, said during a virtual news conference, calling the lagging vaccination rates and increased cases among younger Utahns “very, very concerning.”
Vinik said Utahns under 50 are “significantly less vaccinated than our elderly population” and are largely responsible for an increase in cases, including those that are serious enough to require hospitalization in an intensive care unit.
Even though the increases are far from what the state saw at the height of the pandemic last winter, Vinik said any surge in cases would be difficult to manage now because hospitals are filled with patients who postponed other necessary care over the past 15 months.
Adding to the concern is the likelihood that the more contagious and possibly more virulent delta variant responsible for the huge death toll in India, where it was first identified late last year, will become the dominant COVID-19 strain in Utah.
Vinik said “clearly there’s a correlation” between the increased cases and the spread of the new variant. “There’s also a lot of other things that have happened in the state. We just had the Memorial Day holiday, we’ve had a significant loosening of restrictions.”
He said a combination of those factors is likely to reason behind the rise in the number of positive tests for the virus in the University of Utah Health system from 80 on May 30, to 147 on June 30; and in the percentage of symptomatic patients who test positive going from 7.1% to 12.7% over the same period.
Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the division of infectious diseases at University of Utah Health, told reporters the delta variant, first seen in Utah in April, is “probably at least 50% more transmissible than previous strains,” and may also cause more serious disease, hospitalizations and even death, although there is not yet “hard proof.”
Swaminathan estimated the delta variant accounts for about 30% of Utah’s COVID-19 cases. He said when the variant raged through India, “essentially nobody” was vaccinated in that country. It is now the dominant variant in the United Kingdom, displacing another variant that forced Britain to shut down earlier this year.
The easiest way to protect against the variant is vaccines, Stephen Goldstein, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Utah School of Medicine, said during the news conference. For those who aren’t vaccinated, protection means continuing to wear masks and take other precautions no longer required for the fully vaccinated.
“If you want to not have to do those things and you want to try to avoid becoming infected with SARS C0-V-2, and the delta variant in particular, then you should get vaccinated,” Goldstein said. “It’s important to understand that if you choose not to get vaccinated, ultimately, there’s a very high likelihood you’ll become infected.”
He said that could come “next month, next winter or the following winter. One thing that’s concerning about the delta variant is what we call the secondary attack rate in households,” he said, that doubles from the usual 20% of a household that can expect to become infected when the virus is brought home to 40%.
“You’re not only going to ultimately get this virus yourself, you’re more and more likely now than ever to give it to somebody else in your family, whether that’s your kids or your elderly parents or grandparents,” Goldstein said, something that should be taken into account when making a decision about the shots.
The vaccines approved for use in the United States protect against the known variants, although they may be less effective against the delta variant. There continue to be some breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in fully vaccinated Utahns, but 98% of deaths caused by the virus occur in those who haven’t gotten the shots.
Still, Swaminathan said care needs to be taken since there’s a possibility that even someone who is vaccinated could become infected without symptoms and spread the virus to others since no vaccine can offer 100% protection.
“If you are vaccinated, I don’t think it means that you should throw all caution to the wind,” he said, especially since so many Utahns haven’t had the shots and “the people who are not vaccinated are not all doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Vaccines are widely available to all Utahns 12 and older, just 48.9% of all residents have received at least one dose and only 42% are fully vaccinated. Among those eligible for the vaccine, the number who’ve gotten at least one shot is 60.5%, and 52% are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose.