COVID-19 is surging again in Utah and cases will likely keep climbing at least through mid-June, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician warned Thursday.

“We’re in a surge phase again,” Dr. Brandon Webb told reporters during a virtual news conference after the Utah Department of Health reported 4,504 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, along with another 148 hospitalizations and four additional deaths from the virus.

“I’m not surprised by the report of today’s numbers. I think it’s a significant undercount,” Webb said, given the jump in the test positivity rate, to nearly 19% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded, from just under 15.5% last week.

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The test positivity for children in Utah has also increased, “probably fivefold over where it was at its lowest, in early April,” said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health and director of Hospital Epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

Pavia told reporters at the news conference that it’s difficult to track case rates among children since most parents test their children at home for COVID-19 “so they’re not showing up in the numbers.” The results of home tests are not reported to the state.

What’s most worrying to Pavia about the latest surge is the impact on patient care as hospitals, already “pretty full with run-of-the-mill patients,” are now having to deal with “a major staff shortage” due to health care workers calling in with COVID-19.

Both Pavia and Webb said vaccinations and booster shots are key to preventing severe cases of COVID-19, including in children 5-11 who were just approved for the extra dose Thursday, especially if its likely immunity from the initial doses of vaccine as well as any previous infection has waned.

Because of what newer versions of the omicron variant of the virus that fueled last winter’s record-breaking surge are doing in other parts of the country, Webb said Utah can expect COVID-19 cases “to continue to rise for at least another four weeks or so.”

Neither Webb nor Pavia wanted to predict what COVID-19 might look like in the fall, although Pavia said when everyone starts spending more time indoors, including children returning to the classroom, they may be more susceptible and cases could be going up yet again.

About a third of Americans, mainly in the Northeast, are currently living in high transmission areas for the virus, up from about a quarter of the nation’s population last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency is urging people in those areas to consider wearing masks in indoor public places.

So far, the CDC shows only one Utah county, Summit, above a low risk of transmission. The Utah Department of Health was waiting Thursday for the federal agency’s map to be updated to see if other counties would join Summit, now considered to have a medium transmission level.

Utahns should monitor the community levels posted by the CDC, state health department spokeswoman Jenny Johnson said in a statement, “and take appropriate precautions based on their community level and their own personal situations.”

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Johnson said the state health department is also expecting COVID-19 numbers to keep heading up.

“We are seeing an increase of COVID-19 across the state right now as well as an increase in the number of people who are being hospitalized. Given trends in other areas of the country, we expect to see sustained increases over the coming weeks,” Johnson said in the statement.

“This is a good reminder that if you aren’t up-to-date on your COVID-19 vaccinations, including getting a booster dose, now is the time to do so. The vaccines provide protection from COVID-19 and can protect you from serious illness and the inconveniences of missed work and other activities,” she said.

As for masking, something that the Utah Legislature has limited the ability of public health agencies to mandate, Johnson said, “People who are at higher risk of serious illness due to age or medical conditions, and those who work and live with them, should also consider taking precautions like wearing a mask in public places.”

Gov. Spencer Cox, who announced May 12 he had tested positive for COVID-19 after experiencing a scratchy throat the night before, wore a mask during Thursday’s taping of his monthly news conference on PBS Utah. Cox told reporters he has not had a fever since Sunday.

The CDC’s advice for anyone who first showed symptoms on May 11 and last had a fever on Sunday is, “You can leave your home on May 17, 2022 if your symptoms are improving. Wear a well-fitting mask around other people and do not travel through May 21, 2022.”

The governor’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, said he did not test again for the virus after his initial positive result and cited state health department guidelines stating people don’t need to be tested again to end isolation since they could test positive even after they are no longer able to spread the virus.

Cox said Utah is seeing a spike in virus cases.

“I am part of that spike,” the governor said, along with Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson R-Kaysville, and other high-profile Utahns. “The positive news is that this surge has not seen a significant surge in hospitalizations anywhere across the country and we’re not seeing that in Utah as well.”

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He said public health officials will continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 and encourage Utahns at risk to get booster shots of the virus vaccine, now widely available to anyone 12 and older. Cox said Utahns worried about the increased transmission rates should “feel free” to wear a mask.

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What the governor said surprised him most about having COVID-19 was getting “the worst sore throat that I’ve ever had. It felt like a hot branding iron was stuck down my throat,” making it hard to eat or even swallow last Sunday, “my worst day by far.”

Combined with the cough he picked up as the virus moved into his chest as part of what his doctor called “a fairly normal progression,” the governor said the virus was hard to deal with since “you almost feel like you’re drowning just a little bit.”

Now, though, his sore throat is gone and he said Thursday he feels “much better.”

Contributing: Katie McKellar

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