Gov. Spencer Cox announced Friday Utah is on track to start treating COVID-19 like the flu or other seasonal respiratory diseases by March 31, stopping just short of declaring the pandemic is over in the state after more than two years.

“Let me be clear that this is not the end of COVID,” the governor said during a news conference at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City outlining the Utah Department of Health’s plans to discontinue testing for all but the most vulnerable Utahns as well as daily reports on the spread of the virus.

The changes don’t mean that Utah is “spiking the football,” he said.

“As the state, we are not packing up and heading home. We will continue to see cases and outbreaks and hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths. But it does mean we are adapting to how we respond to these things. There is still work to be done,” Cox said.

Over the next six weeks, he said the virus testing and treatment now provided by the state health department will shift to private health care systems. COVID-19 vaccinations and monitoring will continue to be handled by the public health agency, and testing and other supplies will be stockpiled in case of a future outbreak.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks at a COVID-19 briefing in the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Are some Utahns taking COVID-19 too seriously?

It’s a transition from “an emergency posture and into a manageable risk model,” where it’s up to Utahns to decide for themselves whether they need to wear a mask, social distance or get vaccinated, the governor said, suggesting that for some at least, it’s time to be more relaxed.

“There are a whole bunch of people who are unvaccinated and unboosted and at high risk who should take this disease much more seriously. There are also a whole bunch of people in our state who are vaccinated and boosted and young and at low risk who could stand to take this disease a lot less seriously,” Cox said.

Both Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider, and University of Utah Health, the only academic health care system in the mountain west, issued statements after the governor’s announcement stressing the need for Utahns to keep taking precautions against the virus.

“Intermountain Healthcare strongly encourages Utahns to continue to employ good preventive practices, including masking in public, avoiding large gatherings, and getting vaccinated or boosted to combat the transmission and severe health impacts of COVID,” Intermountain Healthcare spokesman Jess Gomez said.

U. Health spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said, “Though cases are declining, COVID-19 continues to strain our resources as a hospital system. We ask the public to continue to mask, vaccinate, and practice social distancing as we work vigilantly to provide care to our community.”

Should vaccinated, boosted Utahns get another COVID-19 shot?

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said the administration will continue to encourage Utahns to get vaccinated against COVID-19, including children as young as 6 months old once they become eligible for the shots. Federal authorities have delayed the approval process until a study of a third dose is completed, likely in April.

“Vaccines have saved a lot of lives, and they’ve prevented so much spread,” Henderson said, despite breakthrough cases like her recent second bout with COVID-19 that kept her home for weeks. Thanks to being vaccinated, she did not require hospitalization or ongoing supplemental oxygen this time, unlike her first case in 2020.

Vaccinations prevent severe illness, the lieutenant governor said, but Utah “has a long way to go” when it comes to booster shots. Currently, less than 61% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final, initial dose, and just over 26% have also gotten a booster shot.

Utah lieutenant governor tests positive for COVID-19

The science supports the move, Cox said, citing reliance on testing wastewater for the virus and other measures after he told most Utahns to skip testing if they show symptoms. Utah’s case counts have dropped since a January surge fueled by the omicron variant, along with hospitalizations, but deaths remain high.

Friday, the state health department reported 15 additional deaths from COVID-19, including two deaths that occurred before Jan. 18, bringing Utah’s death toll from the virus to 4,359. There were also 999 new cases reported, and 459 people are currently hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19.

“We know where this is going. We know what the trends are. And if it doesn’t, we have the ability to adjust. This idea that we have to get stuck in some crazy situation forever is very, very unscientific,” the Republican leader said, noting other states, including those led by Democrats, are taking similar actions.

The governor took a swipe at the news media, saying he is “very disappointed in the media members that continue to perpetuate that instead of understanding. We’ve seen a huge change in the national media and I don’t know if it’s because blue governors are sounding like red governors now.”

Utah state epidemiologist Leisha Nolen speaks at a COVID-19 briefing in the Gold Room at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 18, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

What ‘endemic’ phase means for Utahns

Utahns are ready for what would be the endemic phase of COVID-19, he said. Unlike during a pandemic, when exponential spread of a disease encompasses the globe, a disease is considered endemic when outbreaks are more limited, even though hospitalizations and deaths continue.

“As we’re moving on to this new phase of the pandemic response, as we’re moving away from a pandemic response, most Americans, most Utahns, are ready to be done with this,” the governor said, urging Utahns to be respectful of those who continue to wear masks and take other precautions against the virus.

But he said it’s “a false question” to ask about the impact of the new phase on the immunocompromised who depend on others to take precautions around them because they are more vulnerable to infection, along with others, including the elderly and children under 5 who cannot yet get vaccinated.

“It is absolutely false that if you’re immunocompromised, you can’t protect yourself from COVID-19, and that we have to have every single person in the world protect you from COVID-19. That was true a year ago. That is not true today,” the governor said, given booster shots and new treatments.

Two of his siblings are “severely immunocompromised” and one has regularly worn N95 masks for many years, Cox said, telling Utahns because “we care deeply about our immunocompromised individuals,” they should not mock someone for wearing a mask.

“Give them your love and support,” because it’s very possible they’re going through cancer treatment. It’s very possible they live with someone who is severely immunocompromised. That’s why we have to be kind and we have to be respectful of the choices people make,” the governor said.

Hardest hit ‘long’ COVID-19 patients may be those who least expect it

Cox said he is pleased to see businesses ending COVID-19 restrictions like masking and vaccination requirements. Having to show a vaccination card “doesn’t make sense” given how many breakthrough cases there have been with the omicron variant, the governor said.

“I sincerely hope businesses will recognize that and they’ll open back up. That’s so important for us healing and coming back together,” he said, adding he’d also like state lawmakers “to be done” with legislation related to COVID-19 because that would send a signal to the public that the state is moving on.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters the governor’s new approach to COVID-19 in Utah is “spot on,” and that lawmakers have “been saying that for a long time, and, you know, that’s where the numbers are pointing,”

Adams said while COVID-19 has been “very difficult” for Utah, “we’ve managed it fairly well.” He said “hopefully, we’ve got brighter days ahead of us as far as the virus,” noting Utah’s economy remains strong. “We’ve been through a big storm and I think we’ve come through it.”

The state health department is already taking some action.

Testing sites in Bluffdale and Layton closed earlier this week, and Friday is the final day for testing at the Hyrum Senior Center in Hyrum, the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah Valley University in Orem, and the Maverik Center in West Valley City. A mass testing site at BYU’s LaVell Edwards Stadium closes after Sunday.

Daily reports on COVID-19 from the state health department will end within the next six weeks, but no specific date has been set yet.

Contributing: Katie McKellar