Utah ranks sixth nationally in the rate of COVID-19 cases, but health care officials say the answer to the surge is getting reluctant residents vaccinated against the deadly virus rather than returning to statewide mask mandates or other restrictions.
With eight new COVID-19 cases reported for every 100,000 residents, Utah ranks behind only Arkansas and Missouri, which each have double the new daily cases; Florida and Nevada, each with 10; and Wyoming with nine, according to the New York Times.
The situation led to leaders of Utah’s major health care systems holding a virtual news conference Wednesday to plead with people to get the shots, warning of increasingly crowded hospitals largely blamed on the spread of the now dominant and highly contagious delta variant of the virus among the unvaccinated.
“This is really a critical time in our pandemic response,” said Dr. Michelle Hofmann, Utah Department of Health deputy director. She said as of June, Utah has experienced the third-highest monthly caseload growth since the pandemic began in March 2020, with at least a 75% increase in cases, test percent positivity and hospitalizations.
But unlike past increases, the cases are occurring mostly among adults 25-64. Those younger but still eligible for the vaccine, available to all Utahns 12 and older, as well as the elderly who don’t receive the same level of protection from the shots, are also getting sick, Hofmann said.
“The frustrating part about all this is that unlike last year, we have all the tools to stop this pandemic in its tracks. The COVID-19 vaccines work,” she said, adding that although the state reached Gov. Spencer Cox’s goal of 70% of adults getting at least one dose before July 4th, “frankly, we just need more people to be vaccinated.”
Cox announced Tuesday that the state had hit the 70% goal by counting federal doses administered in the state, but continued to call for more Utahns to be vaccinated in a series of tweets, warning, “we’re not out of the woods yet. Unfortunately, the pandemic is not over.”
The surge in cases doesn’t mean mask mandates and other restrictions are coming back, however.
Last week, the governor made it clear he has no interest in revisiting the controversial mandates removed by the Utah Legislature sooner than he wanted, answering, “absolutely not” when asked if that’s where the state was headed again. “We’re pleading for a return to sanity and asking people to get their vaccines.”
Anyone not vaccinated is still expected to wear a mask and social distance, although Hofmann said those who have gotten the shots are more likely to take the precautions. Doctors are advising masks and social distancing for everyone in situations where it’s not clear who’s vaccinated.
“Vaccine is important. But if you’re not certain, those simple measures are still important. Particularly if you’re in a crowd, and if you’re not certain, still mask, still keep your social distance,” said Dr. Mike Baumann, chief medical officer for MountainStar Healthcare, which has eight hospitals in Utah.
Dr. Kencee Graves, University of Utah Health associate chief medical officer for inpatient care, made a point of wearing a mask while participating in the governor’s news conference last week even though she’s been vaccinated since last December “because I want everyone around me to feel safe.”
Wednesday, Graves stressed vaccination as the way to protect others.
“If you have not been vaccinated, I do think it’s important to recognize the delta variant is transmissible and it’s likely to land you in the hospital. That, I think, is worth avoiding. Masking and social distancing is important if you’re unvaccinated, but the more definitive thing to do is to get the vaccine,” she said.
For Dr. Arlen Jarrett, Steward Health Care chief medical officer, “the time has come when we’re past the point of mask mandates and social distancing mandates that we’ve seen. I think that’s behind us.” But Jarrett said the state can do more to remove barriers keeping Utahns from the shots.
Those include needing time off work, transportation or even just information on where to go, he said. Steward hospitals are reaching out to patients as well as their family members and other visitors about COVID-19 vaccinations so they can get the vaccine while they’re there, Jarrett said.
Hofmann said Utahns have the “ability to collectively come together and do the right things. We know what tools are required. We know what it takes to slow the spread and stop the spread of COVID-19. Many places are doing that perfectly.”
Vaccination rates vary widely throughout the state and are lowest in rural areas as well as places like Utah County, where COVID-19 restrictions sparked a widely covered anti-masking protest that ended a county commission meeting a year ago.
“People know what the right things are to do,” Hofmann said. “We have to call upon all Utahns to continue to do that. It isn’t fair that a subset of our population is leading to surges in our disease. We have to have a community spirit and altruism that I know Utah has.”
Just under half of all Utahns have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 44.3% are fully vaccinated against the virus, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose. Utah has administered a total of nearly 2.9 million vaccine doses, a daily increase of 5,138.
At the same time, another 394 COVID-19 cases were reported Wednesday by the state health department, along with two additional deaths from the virus — an Iron County man and woman, both between 45 and 64 and both hospitalized at the time of the death. Utah’s death toll now stands at 2,387 lives lost.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 361 per day, and 3,619 people were tested and 6,632 tests conducted in the state since Tuesday. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity at 7.9% when all test results are included, and at 11.8% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
Currently, 260 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19.