Sparked by the fast-spreading delta variant, a doctor is warning there may be even more breakthrough cases of COVID-19 coming in Utahns who are fully vaccinated.

“Right, now we have high volumes of patients in the hospital and we’re really nervous about our COVID numbers rising because we remember what it was like when it was really bad. I fear that we’re heading there again,” Dr. Taki May, Logan Regional Hospital medical director, said during an Intermountain Healthcare virtual news conference Monday.

The Utah Department of Health reported 2,269 new COVID-19 cases and nine additional deaths Monday from the virus over the long holiday weekend.

The state’s new numbers cover four days, from last Thursday through Sunday. Last Wednesday, Utah reported an “alarming” single-day total of 873 new COVID-19 cases and four new deaths from the virus, also blamed largely on the delta variant, which is seen as responsible for infecting more people who are fully vaccinated.

‘Pandemic not over’: Utah doctors respond to ‘alarming’ jump in COVID-19 cases

May, who specializes in hospital care, said she treated her first patient with a breakthrough case of COVID-19 this weekend and is aware of a caregiver at the 150-bed facility that’s “bursting at the seams” who also caught the coronavirus after being fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since the final dose.

“I think we are going to see the breakthrough rate increase, and that’s just because virus mutate. It’s part of what they are,” she said, warning that as more variants emerge, “they’re going to escape our vaccines. But right now the vaccines that we have are still very effective against the variants that we’re seeing.”

That includes the highly contagious delta variant first detected in India now responsible for some 86% of cases from a virus variant, estimated to be about 80% of all cases, according to state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko. Because it is far more transmissible, that means more breakthrough cases, he said.

There have been 3,538 breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in Utah among those who are fully vaccinated, with 256 hospitalizations and 10 deaths, state health department data shows, putting the rate of infection in the fully vaccinated at less than 0.25%.

“We hear about them because they’re unusual,” May said of breakthrough COVID-19 cases.

“When you drive your car, you don’t think, ‘Oh, I could get in an accident today.’ We hear about accidents because they’re unusual. I think people need to change their mindset,” she said. “We hear about the scary stuff because it’s scary. We don’t hear about the mundane stuff, which is most people, successfully vaccinated, avoiding COVID.”

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‘It could be COVID,’ so get tested

Cases of the deadly virus have been going up in the Cache County area served by Logan Regional Hospital, the doctor said, rising over the past two to three weeks from single digits to 25 to 30 cases a day. She said she believes there’s likely even more cases than that because many people aren’t getting tested.

“At this point, I would tell anyone who had any type of respiratory symptoms, it’s worth getting tested because it could be COVID,” May said, especially if they’re accompanied by a fever and fatigue. She said her patient who had been vaccinated but still caught the virus “thought he just had a cold and it turned out it was COVID.”

The patients coming to the hospital with the virus are younger and healthier than earlier this year, the doctor said. She said she continues to wear a mask at the grocery store despite being fully vaccinated to protect her parents, who also got the shots, but because they are immunocompromised, may still be more vulnerable to the virus.

“I know that my community is only about 55% to 56% vaccinated and most people aren’t wearing a mask, which means there are a number of potentially unvaccinated, infectious people there,” the doctor said, acknowledging others might not make the same choice.

“Really, it’s about do you know the people you’re hanging out with? Do you know that they’re vaccinated? Do you know that they’re healthy?” May said. “If you see someone who is sniffling or coughing, I would definitely wear my mask around them.”

While new vaccination requirements are being imposed by some government entities — including New York City and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs — to contain the fast-spreading delta variant, the Utah Legislature voted earlier this year to bar government agencies in the state from doing the same.

Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, the sponsor of the bill banning government-mandated COVID-19 vaccinations in Utah, said despite the latest surge in cases, it’s not time for lawmakers to reconsider that prohibition, noting there is an exception for some government health care workers who also require other immunizations.

“For the general population, to me it’s just an issue of individual responsibility. We know the breakthrough cases are very low and most of the people getting sick from COVID are unvaccinated. So they decided to take on that risk. I respect that,” Spendlove said.

What could change his mind, the lawmaker said, is if the number of breakthrough COVID-19 cases rose significantly. For now, Spendlove said there’s not a “huge health risk” for the fully vaccinated or for children under 12 who are have not yet been approved to get the shots.

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers

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There have been 428,687 positive COVID-19 cases in Utah since the pandemic began in March 2020, an increase of 2,269 since last Thursday. Those break down to 768 new cases reported on Thursday, 672 on Friday, 506 on Saturday and 329 on Sunday. Six cases previously reported have been removed from the overall count.

Utah has seen 2,989,690 coronavirus vaccine doses administered, 20,552 more than Thursday’s total.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests for the virus is 646 per day, and 15,683 people have been tested and 25,875 tests conducted in Utah since Thursday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 10.2% when all results are included, and 14.6% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

There are 343 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, and the state’s death toll has reached 2,434 with the nine deaths reported since Thursday. They are:

  • A Tooele County man, between 65-84, not hospitalized
  • A woman whose residence and age is unknown, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Salt Lake County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Davis County man, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Box Elder County woman, between 65-84, not hospitalized
  • A Washington County man, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Salt Lake County woman, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Weber County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
  • A Washington County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death
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