COVID-19 cases in Utah could “go up quite significantly” by October, which is a concern as students prepare to return to school, state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen told the Utah State Board of Education in Salt Lake City on Thursday.

Math models suggest COVID-19 cases could quadruple from current levels by fall, she said.

COVID-19 cases among school-age children are rising along with the general population, largely due to the spread of the more-contagious delta variant of the virus. On Thursday, state health officials reported 1,096 new cases from a day earlier, and a rolling seven-day average for positive tests of 905 per day. 

“If we take and predict what we expect is going to happen, these modelers who use math can tell us that we should expect somewhere between an even number where we are right now to even four times as much. So we expect by October these numbers to possibly go up quite significantly. So we think there will be quite a few cases in the K through 12 age group,” Nolen said.

Utah health authorities recommend wearing masks in schools, but it is not required under state law — except on school buses under federal directives.

The best protection for children is vaccination, she said. Vaccinations have not yet been approved for children under the age of 12.

“The best thing to do is get vaccinated. Second best is to wear a mask. ... If you want to protect your kid, this is the best way to do it,” she said.

Dr. Leisha Nolan, state epidemiologist, presents data on COVID-19 and recommendations for schools during a Utah State Board of Education meeting in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Presently, 40% of Utah’s school-age youth have received one dose of coronavirus vaccine, although those numbers may rise as concerns about the delta variant increase, Nolen said.

Many people perceive COVID-19 mostly affects older adults, “the truth is, it also can have significant impacts on children,” Nolen said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 82,273 children from newborn to age 18 have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Among them, 752 were hospitalized with 46 requiring intensive care unit stays. Eighty-two Utah children developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome, “where it affects really many organ systems and causes really significant disease,” Nolen said.

Within Utah’s population ages 0-18, children in the K-12 group represented 92% of COVID-19 cases, 81% of hospitalizations, 78% of intensive care unit admissions and 67% of the multisystem inflammatory syndrome cases, according to data presented to the board.

“So these kids are being affected. There’s no question,” she said.

Nolen said health and education officials have a shared interest in keeping students healthy and attending school as much as possible.

Health authorities have the added concern of patient loads in hospitals during the recent surge of COVID-19 cases.

“Our health care system already is almost at the breaking point. If we put kids back in school and we then add to all these cases exponentially, our health care systems are not going to be able to treat our sick patients. I could imagine that might start the conversation of when do we put in directives,” Nolen said.

Last week, the Utah Department of Health issued its latest COVID-19 guidelines for schools, which recommended vaccination of all people age 12 and older and wearing masks indoors at schools.

The recommendations also include: 

  • Isolating at home if you test positive for COVID-19.
  • Quarantine and other protective measures after a school exposure.
  • Testing for COVID-19.
  • Staying home when you’re sick.
  • Physical distancing and grouping students and staff into cohorts.
  • Improving or increasing indoor ventilation.
  • Hygiene practices.
  • Cleaning and disinfection.