The Biden administration’s warning that the United States could be hit by 100 million COVID-19 infections this fall is getting some backing by the Utah Department of Health.
Keeping in mind that new variants of the virus are expected to emerge and the nation’s immunity is waning, Sam LeFevre, director of the state health department’s office of communicable diseases, told the Deseret News, “we think it is quite possible the nation could see up to 100 million cases in a fall surge.”
Responding in an email to questions about the widely circulated projection made last Friday by a senior administration official during a background briefing with The Washington Post, LeFevre said, “It is hard to say with certainty what will happen this fall,” including what surprises new variants might bring.
But currently, the thinking is that “Utah’s fall surge will look something like” the fall 2020 to winter 2021 surge, he said. The models the state uses for its projections rely on historical data dominated by the delta and original omicron variants, LeFevre said, not on so-called “stealth omicron,” labeled BA.2, or other subvariants.
“It is just starting to adjust to how omicron BA.2 changes, and we don’t have any information about the future variants. If the future variants are considerably different from what we experienced in the past, the model results will be wrong,” he said.
White House says funding needed to ‘get ahead of this thing’
The surge predicted for the nation that The Washington Post said could also bring “a potentially significant wave of deaths” through the winter, is being blamed on the latest versions of the highly transmissible omicron variant that appear able to evade immunity from vaccinations and even previous omicron infections.
The forecast comes as the White House is trying to push additional COVID-19 funding through Congress. The administration is seeking $22.5 billion, but a bipartisan agreement negotiated with the help of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, for a $10 billion package has stalled over the relaxing of pandemic restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border.
White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jah, said Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week” the administration needs Congress to allocate the needed resources to prevent infections from reaching the level suggested by both internal and external models.
“What they’re predicting is that if we don’t get ahead of this thing, we’re going to have a lot of waning immunity, this virus continues to evolve and we may see a pretty sizable wave of infections, hospitalizations and deaths this fall and winter,” Jah said.
He said the U.S. is in danger of running out of vaccines, treatments and testing for the virus.
Utah’s health department is already “discussing what our response might look like should we see a new variant that causes a huge wave similar to the omicron wave this past fall and winter,” LeFevre said. The original omicron variant tore through Utah and the rest of the United States, sending case counts surging to record levels.
Since then, new omicron subvariants — and subvariants of subvariants — have emerged and cases are starting to climb again. Two new highly transmissible omicron subvariants known as BA.4 and BA.5 are spreading fast in South Africa, where the original omicron was first seen in November 2021.
The BA.2 omicron subvariant is dominant in the United States, accounting for just over 56% of the nation’s cases, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, while a BA.2 subvariant, BA.12.2.1, makes up nearly 43%.
In the region that includes Utah, 62.5% of COVID-19 cases are due to BA.2 and just over 36% to the subvariant.
Utah ‘has plans in place’ for another outbreak
LeFevre said the state health department “has plans in place to guide a response to another COVID-19 outbreak. We are currently reviewing and updating those plans. It is a routine practice to periodically review our plans,” he said, adding data about the state’s COVID-19 cases continues to be collected and analyzed.
“We also are watching what is happening in our neighboring states, the nation as a whole and globally. We have analytical techniques that help inform when different actions need to be taken,” LeFevre said.
However, he said what specifically would trigger any action by the state health department is “dependent on the characteristics of the dominant variant, how that variant is stressing our health care system, and on the will and decisions of our elected officials.”
Utah has shifted to what Gov. Spencer Cox is calling his “steady state” response to the pandemic, moving most testing and treatment for the virus to private providers. Utah lawmakers have limited the power of state and local officials to impose mask mandates or other public health measures.
LeFevre said he doesn’t see COVID-19 testing and treatment being resumed for the general public, although the department does “have a responsibility to continue to assist those in our public who are underserved and we will focus our efforts on that part of our population.”
As for whether mask mandates or other restrictions would ever be considered in the wake of another coronavirus surge, he said that’s “a decision our state elected officials will make. The department will continue to provide recommendations and guidance that the public may choose to follow.”
LeFevre encouraged Utahns “to maintain their immunity by getting vaccinated and keeping up to date on boosters. The vaccine and boosters have proven to be exceptionally effective and safe. The public knows how to mask and social distance now.”
He also said people should “stay informed about trends, and when the trends become concerning, the public can always voluntarily start those self-protective behaviors. Those have been shown to be very effective in slowing down the spread.”
The U.S. has reached 1 million deaths from COVID-19, NBC News reported last week. The death toll in Utah was at 4,760 last Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Health, which now updates coronavirus numbers weekly instead of daily under the governor’s pandemic response.
Correction: In an earlier version, the Utah Department of Health’s Sam LeFevre incorrectly referenced a surge of coronavirus in fall 2019 to winter 2020. LeFevre said he meant to refer to the fall 2020 to winter 2021 surge.