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Is it a cold or COVID-19? New variants mean new symptoms

Ramiro Zavala gets a a COVID-19 test at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Tuesday, July 6, 2021.
Utah National Guard Staff Sgt. Sorensen (no first name given) gives Ramiro Zavala a COVID-19 test at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Tuesday, July 6, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Think that sore throat and runny nose are just another cold? It could be the latest symptoms of COVID-19 now that the highly contagious delta variant of the virus is fueling a new surge of cases in Utah.

If you’re experiencing any symptoms, health experts advise getting tested.

“More people are seeing that COVID-19 is resulting in just common cold symptoms. You know, sore throat, runny nose. Not as much cough, higher fever, etc.,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider.

Stenehjem told reporters during a virtual news conference Tuesday that while the shift in symptoms and their connection to the delta variant first detected in India still needs to be validated, that’s what providers are reporting as COVID-19 cases climb.

For those suffering from cold-like symptoms, he said it is “absolutely imperative” they are tested for the virus.

“COVID-19 is an upper respiratory infection, period. So if you have the signs and symptoms of a cold, that could be COVID-19,” Stenehjem said. “It is possible that we’re seeing kind of an evolution of symptoms due to the changing variant. But it’s also possible we’re just seeing a difference in symptoms based on age.”

The doctor noted last winter, when the elderly were hit hard by the virus, symptoms did at times mirror a cold. Now, with more than 80% of that population vaccinated against the coronavirus, it’s younger, nearly always unvaccinated Utahns who are getting sick and those symptoms are more prevalent.

That raises the question of whether the symptoms are different because the delta variant, believed to be more virulent, or because those becoming infected with the virus are a different age group, now largely between 25 and 60, Stenehjem said.

Another Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, Dr. Brandon Webb, told the Deseret News in June that cases of COVID-19 caused by the delta variant initially might seem like a bad cold, with a runny nose and malaise rather than the aches, fever, headache, diarrhea and other symptoms typically associated with the virus.

Webb, warning then that the delta variant was on its way to becoming the dominant virus strain in Utah, said it’s important for those who believe they may have a cold to self-isolate and be tested for COVID-19 even if they are vaccinated, to ensure they don’t unknowingly spread the virus.

Stenehjem said Tuesday the state is experiencing an uptick in coronavirus cases, with some hospitals admitting double the patients over the past week or so. Less than 5% have been vaccinated against the virus and “from a caregiver’s standpoint, that’s just really disappointing because these are preventable hospitalizations.”

At the same time, Stenehjem said vaccinations have plateaued “at relatively low numbers.”

The Utah Department of Health reported Tuesday more than 2.9 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered in the state since last December, a daily increase of 4,678. That’s a far cry from earlier this year, when nearly 10 times as many shots were given in a single day.

Also reported were 471 new COVID-19 cases and three additional deaths from the virus: two Salt Lake County women hospitalized at the time of their deaths, one, 45-64 and the other, 65-84; and a Davis County man, 45-64, also hospitalized at the time of his death. There are 231 people hospitalized with the virus in Utah.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 490 per day, with 3,683 people tested and 6,409 tests conducted in the state since Monday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests when all results are included is 8.7% and 12.9% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

Utahns 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, and just over half of the entire population has received at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccine. But less than 45% of all Utahns are considered fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose.

Gov. Spencer Cox throws out the first pitch before a Salt Lake Bees game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. The governor and the Bees hosted the game as a thank-you to health care and public health workers for their hard work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Spencer Cox throws out the first pitch before a Salt Lake Bees game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. The governor and the Bees hosted the game as a thank-you to health care and public health workers for their hard work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Gov. Spencer Cox had hoped 70% of Utah adults would have gotten at least one shot by July 4th, but he apologized Monday after acknowledging an error in calculating the doses administered by the federal government led him to wrongly announce last week that goal was reached when the actual number was just over 67%.

“Welp. We screwed up. Because of a reporting error we have not yet hit 70% on our adult vaccinations,” the governor said in a tweet picked up by Politico and other news outlets. “I promised to admit our mistakes and hold us accountable. I hope you will forgive us — and know we have made changes to ensure it won’t happen again.”

Stenehjem said the focus shouldn’t be on reaching what’s known as herd immunity, a point when enough people are protected against the virus that it ceases to spread because the population is no longer susceptible to infection.

But COVID-19 is constantly changing and may “be with us for the years to come,” he said, like the flu that requires annual updated vaccinations against the latest strains. As Utah grapples with the fast-spreading delta variant, 14 cases of the lambda variant that was found in Peru have already surfaced in the state.

So far, the vaccines approved for use in the United States are believed to be effective against the variants. Stenehjem said rather than giving Americans booster shots as proposed by vaccine maker Pfizer, it might be better to get more people around the world vaccinated to help prevent more variants from emerging.

That includes more Utahns. According to the state health department, 14,900 of the 15,949, or 93.4%, of the COVID-19 cases identified in Utah between May 1 and June 25 occurred in unvaccinated people. During that same time period, 91.3% of the 1,049 people hospitalized and 96% of the 77 who died were also not vaccinated.

“There’s a lot of talk of variants. There’s a lot of talk of boosters. There’s all of these lines of conversation that can get people confused,” Stenehjem said, adding that Utahns shouldn’t get distracted. “Let’s focus on the task at hand. And that task at hand is getting more people vaccinated.”

Gov. Spencer Cox chats with attendees before a Salt Lake Bees game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. The governor and the Bees hosted the game as a thank-you to health care and public health workers for their hard work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Spencer Cox chats with attendees before a Salt Lake Bees game at Smith’s Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 13, 2021. The governor and the Bees hosted the game as a thank-you to health care and public health workers for their hard work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News