Utah’s record-breaking omicron surge may be nearing a peak, University of Utah Health officials said Wednesday, but last week’s call by Gov. Spencer Cox for most Utahns showing signs they’ve caught the incredibly transmissible COVID-19 variant to skip getting tested could make it tough to tell.
“I have a lot of caution in interpreting any flattening,” Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the U. Health Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, told reporters during a virtual news conference Wednesday. “We’ve really maxed out our testing capacity. The governor has talked about people not seeking testing.”
Pavia said that means Utah’s daily COVID-19 case counts, based on test results reported to the state, “may not be as accurate an indicator as we want them to be. And if we look at test positivity ... it is still going up. It’s over 40%. So I’m not quite sure we’re at the peak yet.”
Utah has seen some 20 days of steady increases, while states now seeing a decline experienced surges of between 19 and 24 days, Erin Clouse, U. Health strategic engagement manager, said. Still, she noted, Utah’s case counts are “still very, very high” and hospitalizations are expected to keeping climbing for the next few weeks.
Currently, Utah has the nation’s fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population, 331, behind only Rhode Island, Wisconsin and South Carolina, according to data compiled by The New York Times. On Tuesday, Utah ranked fifth.
But testing done by U. Health along the Wasatch Front suggest cases may be plateauing, said Dr. Russell Vinik, U. Health chief medical operations officer. After positive tests among symptomatic patients jumped after the beginning of the year, the daily count dropped slightly over the past week, from around 200 to about 155.
There are “at least some early signs that say we might be getting towards a plateau. But it’s still very early data,” Vinik said, adding that even though Pavia has suggested that could be a false summit, “a little bit of hope is a good thing.”
Utah’s daily case count hit 12,564 Wednesday, short of the record of more than 13,500 set last Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported, with total cases in the state since the start of the pandemic now exceeding 800,000. The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 10,967 per day.
The state’s death toll from the virus is now at 3,997 with 18 additional deaths reported Wednesday, and hospitalizations have hit a new high with 715 people in hospitals with COVID-19 throughout the state, including 202 in intensive care units.
In the past day, 21,616 people were tested and 45,029 tests conducted, the state health department said. Results from home test kits are not reported to the state. The rolling seven -day average for percent positivity is 41.6% when all results are included, and 29.2% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
Demand at free state testing sites has increased, state health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said, even after last Friday’s announcement that most Utahns should no longer get tested but instead just stay home if they have COVID-19 symptoms because the sites could no longer keep up.
That decision raises doubts about the state’s response to the pandemic, and whether Utah will be able to face the next public health crisis, said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
“It is a failure at precisely the moment when we are experiencing some of the biggest spikes in the nation. We are unable to accurately understand just how prevalent this virus is in our state,” he said, calling it “a failure on the part of local, state and national officials to ensure that sufficient resources were in place.”
Karpowitz said it’s striking that more effort isn’t being made to bolster COVID-19 testing, especially in a state known for its volunteer ethic. Earlier in the pandemic, the governor called on Utahns to volunteer to help at mass vaccination sites.
Instead, the political science professor suggested, political leaders appear to have given in to what “seems like a risky path forward,” where public health officials are “flying blind” when it comes to knowing just how many Utahns have the virus.
“We seem unwilling to take any other steps. I fully understand that people are exhausted by this. I’m exhausted by this. We all want it to be over,” Karpowitz said. He called it “shocking to have elected officials basically throw up their hands and say we can’t handle it anymore.”
Asked if there was an update on the state’s testing situation Wednesday, including whether the state is seeking additional resources, the governor’s office said it is the same as last week and referred a reporter to the Utah Department of Health for details of any changes.
Hudachko disagreed with Karpowitz’s assessment, saying “case counts are not a reliable indicator right now for what’s happening” with omicron. “Our message has been that testing is not necessarily providing a whole lot of value for the response right now.”
He said the state is “not actively discouraging” anyone from being tested, but those who have symptoms likely have the omicron variant and should stay home and isolate for five days without a test. Others, including the medically vulnerable and elderly and those around them, should still be tested,
Utah leaders are not giving up, Hudachko said.
“I couldn’t disagree more. We’re continuing to operate. We’re increasing the amount of testing sites that we’re offering. We’ve changed our operations to make testing more efficient at these sites,” he said. “There’s absolutely no throwing up of the hands.”
The state’s advice changed, Hudachko said, because of staffing shortages, not a lack of testing supplies. Even the at-home test kits that the sites were handing out to those stuck for hours in line until they ran out last week have now been replenished, he said.
And although the state testing laboratory can process only about 2,400 of the more accurate PCR or polymerase chain reaction tests daily, Hudachko said there’s a contract with a private testing facility in place to handle the overflow.
“It’s the same problem that everybody else in the world is running into right now, and that’s that there’s only so much manpower that’s out there in the workforce right now,” he said, adding the state has already activated some members of the Utah National Guard to staff testing facilities but a clinical certification is needed.
Some of the sites are now appointment-only to avoid extended waits, and a new high-volume testing site opened on the BYU campus, with more planned in other counties, although it may be several weeks before they’re up and running, Hudachko said. For now, no more self-serve testing kiosks are in the works.
There are no plans, he said, for the state to use the Legacy Events Center in Farmington for testing, after the COVID-19 vaccination clinic operated there by the Davis County Health Department closes later this month due to a lack of demand.