COVID transmission down in Utah as infectious disease physicians keep an eye on new variant

Mar 21, 2022, 6:45 PM | Updated: Jun 13, 2022, 11:12 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The spread of COVID was low across the state Monday, after Salt Lake County Health lowered its transmission level. But infectious disease physicians were keeping an eye on another variant that they say could bring cases back up.

“We’re doing our best to look ahead and forecast what’s next,” said Dr. Brandon Webb, infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare.

Webb said “we’re enjoying somewhat of a lull” right now with decreasing COVID transmission and fewer patients in the hospital.

He attributed that to the number of people who have received the vaccine and the huge spike in cases we experienced earlier this year that “essentially created a fairly rapid community-level immunity. Coupled with the vaccination rates and the rapid spread of omicron through the population.”

“Temporarily, we have a fairly robust immune buffer in our community,” Webb said.

But if there’s one thing he’s learned during the pandemic, he said, “it’s that we need to stay humble and stay nimble because things change so quickly.”

BA.2 is a subvariant of omicron that is spreading quickly in places like Europe and Asia. And it’s already made its way to the U.S.

So far, Webb says they are seeing a “modest increase” in cases on the east and west coasts because of the variant. Places like New York, New Jersey and California have seen a 10 to 20 percent increase in cases, he said.

And he expects that will translate into hospitalizations and said, “to what degree is the question mark right now.”

“I’m hopeful that we’ll still have enough vaccination uptake and immune buffer in our community that this next rise won’t have as great an impact as the previous,” Webb said. “We’d sure love to see less people in the hospital, less death.”

On Sunday, Salt Lake County Health Director Dr. Angela Dunn tweeted, “We are in low COVID-19 transmission. Take the win!”

But she added, “We are at risk for another surge with the BA.2 variant. But the COVID vaccine works against BA.2. Get your vaccine and booster.”

Webb estimates BA.2 makes up about 20% of Utah’s cases right now. But COVID’s transmission level so far remains low.

“With each of these subsequent rises in case — or surges if you will — we’re moving more and more into what we hope is an endemic format,” Webb said. “Where COVID becomes part of the background. We see it, it occasionally rises and we have the tools to deal with it.”

“If our decline in testing was simply because people did not want to be tested anymore, we would expect our positivity rate to go up,” said Dr. Sterling Bennett, medical director of Intermountain’s Central Laboratory. “But our positivity rate has gone down rather dramatically.”

Bennett said Monday his lab had collected and processed its 2 millionth test since the start of the pandemic.

According to the state’s website, Utah has processed nearly 5 million COVID tests.

He says right now, the COVID positivity rate for tests was around 4 or 5 percent. That’s down from a high of about 50% during the most recent surge.

“Although demand for testing has declined dramatically, testing still plays a really important role. Particularly for those at high risk of severe disease and would qualify for treatment with monoclonal antibodies or other therapies.”

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COVID transmission down in Utah as infectious disease physicians keep an eye on new variant