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Half of Salt Lake County’s COVID-19 cases among vaccinated — but booster shots still seen as key in omicron battle

New Salt Lake mask mandate won’t be challenged by council

Long lines of vehicles are lined up for COVID-19 testing at the Maverik Center on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022. Cory Pack told the Deseret News late this afternoon she has been in line for 6 1⁄2 hours at the testing site, with still many cars ahead of her. The Utah Department of Health said booster shots are a key to fighting variants of the coronavirus.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Half of Salt Lake County’s COVID-19 cases during the record-breaking omicron surge are people who are vaccinated, but experts said booster shots are still the best protection against severe illness or death, along with wearing masks as required under a new mandate that won’t be challenged by the Salt Lake County Council.

Booster shots will “really make a huge dent” in how many Utahns get sick enough from the rapidly spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 to require hospitalization, Dr. Todd Vento, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, told reporters during a virtual news conference Monday about the increase in cases.

Since Friday, there have been 24,147 more coronavirus cases in the state — 9,367 on Friday, 8,663 on Saturday and 6,413 on Sunday — and 20 additional deaths were reported from the virus, including five that occurred before Dec. 10, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Vento said booster shots increase the body’s COVID-19-fighting antibodies, comparing the additional dose of vaccine to increasing “how many guards or men do you have at your castle gate. You have this attack from the virus and you want to have some sort of response.”

That’s doesn’t mean, however, that someone who’s gotten a booster shot will be able to fight off the incredibly transmissible virus that, since first appearing in the state last month, has now driven Utah’s case counts to nearly double the record of almost 5,000 a day set during the worst days of the pandemic last winter.

“Maybe you get overwhelmed,” Vento said. “But you don’t get, say, symptomatic infection. You don’t get hospitalization. You won’t die. But maybe you get infected by a very low-level infection that comes and goes without much to-do about it. That’s really what we’re talking about. It’s not rocket science.”

Vento said there’s a possibility another booster shot may be needed, as information about what he described as a “shape-shifting” virus continues to change.

Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, said just 10% of the county’s cases are in those who received a COVID-19 booster shot, available to anyone 12 and older five months after a second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or two months after the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Dunn, who ordered a 30-day countywide mask mandate last Friday that took effect Saturday, said in a tweet over the weekend that 50% of the cases in the state’s most populous county are in people who remain unvaccinated, while 40% are in those who’ve only gotten the initial doses.

Gabriel Rosito gets a COVID-19 test administered by health care worker Miracle Wright at City Hall in Herriman on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.
Gabriel Rosito gets a COVID-19 test administered by health care worker Miracle Wright at City Hall in Herriman on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

She responded to the suggestion on Twitter that the coronavirus vaccines weren’t working by pointing out the small number of people who’ve gotten all their shots who’ve caught the virus: “10% of cases are up to date. Hospitalizations are mostly unvaccinated. They are working very very well. Thankfully!”

State health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said cases aren’t tracked the same way at the state level, but over the past 28 days there appears to be a “pretty even” split between the unvaccinated and vaccinated, although it’s not clear how many Utahns who have breakthrough cases have gotten booster shots.

“Over the past 28 days, approximately 54% of cases statewide are among unvaccinated people,” Hudachko said in a statement. “However, over the same time frame, unvaccinated people are 8.3 times more likely to be hospitalized and 17.2 times more likely to die.”

He said the “vaccines are still clearly the best tool we have for preventing severe disease and death.”

Vaccines are widely available to anyone 5 and older but less than 60% of all Utahns are considered fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final initial dose. And just under 36% of those who are fully vaccinated have received a booster dose, according to the state health department.

Although omicron is considered milder, the sheer number of cases due to the high transmission rate still has resulted in about a 10% increase in hospitalizations, Vento said, similar to what the state saw from the delta variant that made Utah and the Intermountain West the nation’s hot spot last fall.

Unlike then, however, hospitals are facing staffing shortages due to sickened employees. University of Utah Health said last week that the number of beds available have had to be reduced and surgeries postponed because hundreds of employees are out sick.

So far, Vento said, Intermountain has not had to do the same, although employees are being moved from urgent care facilities to help at hospitals filled “beyond capacity.”

“We’re kind of swimming in omicron right now,” the doctor said, adding that while booster shots can make the biggest difference in the battle against the virus, wearing masks can also have a significant impact, along with avoiding gatherings when possible.

“The reality is, you should wear a mask all the time. That’s something that I know has been politicized,” Vento said, adding that despite what some on social media suggest, data makes it clear “a good quality, well-fitted mask actually will prevent the transmission of viruses,” including COVID-19.

Votes not there to overturn Salt Lake County mask mandate

The huge spike in omicron cases over the past week have led first Summit and then Salt Lake counties to impose mask mandates that require high-quality, well-fitting face coverings to be worn indoors in public, including in schools, as well as outdoors when standing in lines.

Under a law passed by the Utah Legislature last year, such orders from local public health departments can be overridden by county governing bodies as well as state lawmakers. The Summit County Council backed the order there, local health department officials said, but it wasn’t clear Friday what would happen in Salt Lake County.

Late Sunday, Salt Lake County Council Chairwoman Laurie Stringham issued a news release announcing she “will not be calling for a special session on the temporary health mandate at this time.” Stringham said the county “realizes the need to step up and offer to the public a better solution for protection.”

Citing the political divisiveness of masking, she called on “really everyone to be tolerant. Not everyone will comply, we expect that. We are working overtime to get higher quality protection out to the public as quickly as we can. It isn’t worth a fight or angry exchange to try and enforce compliance on someone else.”

Several groups are already pushing back against the mask mandate and a member of the Salt Lake County Council’s Republican majority, Councilman Dave Alvord, posted on Facebook urging those who, like him, had hoped for a chance at overturning it, to ask state lawmakers to intervene.

Alvord said the GOP majority “just didn’t have the votes” and added, “Davis and Utah counties are just a ‘drive away’ if you need fresh air and the smell of freedom.”

Leaders of the Republican-dominated Utah Legislature said in a statement Friday the mask mandates are being reviewed.

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers

With more than 24,000 new cases over the weekend, the rolling seven-day average for positive tests in Utah is 7,768 per day. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 31.4%, when all results are included, and 21.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

There are 3,849 school-aged children included in the three-day case count: 1,210 aged 5-10, 830 aged 11-13, and 1,809 aged 14-17. Since the start of the pandemic, nearly 95,00 children 14 and younger have been hospitalized with COVID-19.

Five young people in the state have been killed by the virus, including one between 15 and 17 years old from Weber County reported Monday. Three of the youth deaths have been 1-14 years old, two from Salt Lake County and one from Davis County, and two are between 15-17, from Salt Lake and Weber counties.

Another 30,818 vaccine doses have been administered in the state since Friday. There have been 56,820 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah and 104,425 tests administered in the past three days, although home tests are not reported to the state.

Currently, 541 people are hospitalized in Utah for the virus. Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 has reached 3,907, with the 20 deaths reported Monday. They are:

  • A Weber County male minor, between 15-17, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Piute County man, between 65-84, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Carbon County man, between 45-64, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Washington County woman, between 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Utah County man, between 65-84, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County woman, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Weber County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County woman, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County man, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County man, between 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Utah County woman, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Washington County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Washington County man, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Salt Lake County man, between 65-84, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County woman, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Washington County woman, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Washington County man, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Washington County woman, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.