COVID-19 cases are likely going to increase in Utah after the Easter holiday and possibly not peak until mid-May, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician warned Monday, as the latest version of the virus is already tearing through the eastern United States.
The so-called “stealth omicron” COVID-19 subvariant also known as BA.2 is credited with with turning an annual Washington, D.C., dinner into a superspreader event that infected members of Congress and President Joe Biden’s Cabinet, and for Philadelphia becoming the first major U.S. city to reinstate a mask mandate this spring.
Based on what’s happening in other parts of the country and abroad, Utah can expect to start seeing 400 to 500 new cases diagnosed daily, Dr. Brandon Webb told the Deseret News. That’s compared to a seven-day average case count of just over 100 cases reported by the Utah Department of Health last Thursday,
“I wouldn’t call it a surge, but I do expect that we’re going to see a swell in cases, a modest increase,” the specialist for the Intermountain region’s largest health care provider said. At the height of the state’s last surge in January, daily case counts in Utah exceeded 13,000.
Easter weekend, he said, coincides with the typical time it’s taken for a new variant to jump from Europe to the East Coast and then to Utah. Holiday gatherings may boost the initial increase in cases even higher, Webb said, but by the second or third week of May, the state’s numbers should start to decline.
The BA.2 subvariant is some 20% to 30% more transmissible than the original omicron variant that drove case counts to record levels earlier this year. Still, Webb said, many Utahns have some immunity against the subvariant because of exposure to omicron or vaccination.
That means there may be “a more tempered increase in the number of cases due to BA.2,” he said, just as New York is seeing.
As cases near a peak in New York, where New York City Mayor Eric Adams tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, Webb said the increase is about four times higher than at the start of the BA.2 wave, “very, very modest compared to what we saw with omicron.”
‘We don’t want to pooh-pooh getting infected’
Dr. Anthony Fauci, White House chief medical adviser, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that “obviously there is concern that we are seeing an uptick in cases,” even though the increase is not unexpected given the pullback on mitigation measures as the BA.2 subvariant is spreading.
Hopefully, Fauci said, the cases won’t be more severe, which could lead to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention once again recommending masking in some areas. Currently, masks are not needed in most of the country — including all of Utah — under the CDC’s recently adjusted guidelines.
Public health officials nationally and locally are leaving it up to individuals to determine their level of risk when it comes to COVID-19. But Fauci said that doesn’t mean Americans no longer need to worry about the effects of getting the virus.
“We don’t want to pooh-pooh getting infected. I think people sometimes say, ‘Well, it’s OK to get infected.’ No, it’s not, because there are things like long COVID and there are sometimes people even though they don’t require hospitalization” they can still become “significantly ill,” he said.
Is Utah ready for more cases?
As of April 1, Gov. Spencer Cox’s “steady state” response to the pandemic moved most COVID-19 testing and treatment to private providers and replaced daily case counts with weekly reports that focus more on keeping tabs on the level of the virus in wastewater and other surveillance tools.
The state health department has contracts in place to resume testing and treatments for the virus, although the specifics of what would trigger that are unclear. Utah lawmakers have limited the powers of state and local officials to deal with public health emergencies, including to impose mask mandates.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, said Utah is prepared for more cases.
“The Utah Department of Health continues to monitor trends and has a plan to ramp up quickly if necessary. We’re confident in their efforts,” she said. Napier-Pearce also pointed to a Wall Street Journal editorial Sunday praising a new study that found Utah had the nation’s best COVID-19 outcomes.
The study, from the conservative Committee to Unleash Prosperity, ranked states based on losses in jobs, economic growth and days in school, as well as deaths due to the virus. Utah fared best overall, scoring fourth on the economy, fifth in education and eighth in deaths adjusted for age and the prevalence of obesity and diabetes.
The Wall Street Journal said the data shows, “The severe lockdown states suffered much more on overall social well-being in return for relatively little comparative benefit on health.” Hawaii, which barred travel, was cited as the “extreme example of this tradeoff,” ranking first in mortality but last on the economy and 46th on education.
Webb said the new approach to the pandemic by Utah and other states is more nuanced than before.
“Nuance is tough,” the Utah doctor said. “The more simple message is that it’s important to understand one’s risk and for individuals to talk with their health care provider about what they can do to continue to appropriately navigate this environment in which we live, where COVID isn’t gone and will continue to ebb and swell.”