Utah’s COVID-19 cases are falling fast but are still high compared to the last surge, and continue to stress hospitals even as the possibility of new variants looms University of Utah Health officials said Tuesday, as the state begins a newly announced transition toward dealing with the deadly virus like the flu or other endemic diseases.

Positive tests for COVID-19 are “definitely heading in the direction of recovery,” dropping 52% since Jan. 21 when all results are included, Erin Clouse, U. Health strategic engagement manager, told reporters during a virtual news conference.

But Clouse cautioned despite being on the other side of the peak in cases driven by the incredibly transmissible omicron variant, “we’re still at really high rates across our state,” comparable to what Utah saw in 2020 and exceeding last fall’s case counts, when the delta variant made the Intermountain West the nation’s hot spot for the virus.

So while Clouse said overall hospitalizations in the state are down 46% since Jan. 27, from a high of well over 800 during the omicron surge, the current number of patients is still close to what happened during previous peaks over the two years of the pandemic.

Is the COVID-19 pandemic over? Utah governor says state shifting to endemic response in coming weeks

Later Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 415 people are currently hospitalized with the virus in Utah, with a total of 2,068 new cases and 13 additional deaths over the long Presidents Day weekend, including one death that occurred prior to Jan. 22.

Dr. Kencee Graves, U. Health associate chief medical officer for inpatient health, said COVID-19 continues to have an impact on both providers and patients.

“Things are stressful here in the hospital,” Graves said. “This morning, we only have a few open acute care beds and many people might need those beds. Our ERs are busy, as are our acute care units. So I would say while COVID may be waning in our community, we still do see effects here in the hospital.”

There are both direct and indirect effects of COVID-19, she said, on patients “who have worsening mental health, who have worsening physical health, who have delayed care, who had a surgery postponed,” as well as on the medical staff who’ve have had to handle the trauma associated with the virus day in and day out.

Stephen Goldstein, a postdoctoral researcher at the U. School of Medicine, said new variants can be expected to emerge “over the course of the next several years and beyond.” So far, he said there’s only been a “slight increase” in the omicron subvariant known as BA.2 to scientists and dubbed “stealth” omicron by others.

“At this point, we’re not experiencing a new wave of infections as a result of this subvariant. We’ll see if that continues to be the case,” Goldstein said, noting it’s already become more prevalent and even dominant in some parts of the world.

The number of BA.2 cases sequenced from positive COVID-19 test samples by the Utah Department of Health laboratory has increased to 21 as of Tuesday, up from seven last week. The subvariant was first detected in Utah in January.

Does omicron mean a new phase is coming for the COVID-19 pandemic?

The update was the first from a health care system since Gov. Spencer Cox said Friday that between now and the end of March, the Utah Department of Health would discontinue COVID-19 testing for all but the most vulnerable Utahns as well as daily reports on the virus’ spread.

The governor said the shift in the state’s pandemic response to what he called “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, does not mean the end of COVID-19, and the state would be ready to respond to future outbreaks.

Graves said Tuesday she’d leave it up to the state to answer whether the state is on track to be able to treat COVID-19 like an endemic disease by March 31. Endemic doesn’t necessarily mean a disease has become less deadly, only that outbreaks are limited compared to the worldwide surges seen in a pandemic.

“Most of us recognize now that COVID-19 is not going to go away, that we are going to have to find a way to live with it and mitigate risk,” Graves said, adding, the university is looking at “how can we best start to recover and be able to move toward what might look like a new normal. I can’t comment on pandemic versus endemic.”

Utah lawmakers all but declared the pandemic was over in the spring of 2021, with legislation that ended a statewide mask mandate and made it difficult for local authorities to impose one. When Salt Lake and Summit counties tried at the peak of the omicron surge, lawmakers overturned their mandates.

Now, nearly every other state is ending mask and vaccine mandates, actions that Graves said make the risk of getting COVID-19 “potentially high” especially among Utahns who are not vaccinated and boosted against the virus. Just 26.5% of all Utahns have gotten both the initial doses and a booster shot.

“We are going to need to be a little flexible as we move forward,” she said.

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Goldstein said masks and social distancing will “continue to be important tools that we can use on an individual basis to mitigate our risks.” An N95 mask might make sense during a wave of the virus, he said but “there will be other times when cases are quite low when you can not have to worry too much about that.”

The same is true of eating in restaurants and going to events like concerts, Goldstein said.

“It’s really going to come down, I think from this point forward, to personal risk calculations,” he said. “I think personally those tools will still have an important role to play in times when the circulation of the virus is high, but I also think that hopefully that will be a less constant concern.”

Participants in the U. Health news conference wore masks, including at times when they were speaking.

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