‘Let’s stay vigilant’: Health expert says it’s OK to celebrate Utah’s COVID-19 decline but the race isn’t over
SALT LAKE CITY — For physicians like Dr. Mark Briesacher, the COVID-19 trends over the past two months have been a welcomed sight.
Utah’s seven-day running average of new COVID-19 cases has fallen 87% since its latest peak on Jan. 9, according to Utah Department of Health data. The current average is now 419 new cases per day, which is the lowest the figure has been in over six months.
As cases have dropped, the pressure the disease forced on hospitals has slowly eased as well. As of Friday, there were 130 people hospitalized for COVID-19, which is the fewest COVID-19 hospitalizations since mid-September.
More severe cases have also gone down: 74% of the state’s referral center ICUs were filled up, which is a tick below the warning threshold. Statewide ICUs were 69% full as well, which is also below the threshold, state health department data shows.
The data also show both referral center ICUs and statewide ICUs reached 10% of ICU capacity as a result of COVID-19 this week also for the first time since mid-September. Both had reached as high as 44% and 45% on Jan. 15.
On top of all of that, the COVID-19 vaccine was opened to all Utahns 16 and up, which is exacted to drastically change the number of Utahns vaccinated in the coming weeks.
“We’re excited about the trends we’re seeing, mostly because it means so much to patients and families,” said Briesacher, chief physician executive at Intermountain Healthcare. “Fewer people in the hospital, fewer people getting critically ill. This is just really good to see.”
While there’s good news about the COVID-19 trends, Briesacher said there’s still a risk associated with celebrating the end of the pandemic too quickly. That’s why he and other public health experts are cautiously optimistic heading into school’s spring break and as the statewide mask mandate technically comes to an end on April 10.
For starters, more people need to be vaccinated and it’s impossible to get at least 70% of the estimated adult population vaccinated in one week. Briesacher also pointed out that while cases have dropped significantly in the past few weeks, they’re still relatively high at 400 to 500 new cases reported every weekday.
I have a lot of empathy for the fact that this disease is still creating such burden for our communities and for individuals and for families. We owe it to them to stay vigilant and keep moving forward in the right ways until we can really tamp this thing down.
–Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive at Intermountain Healthcare
Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, has also pointed out in recent weeks that the number of new cases was plateauing.
“That still represents a lot of new cases,” Briesacher said during a question and answer session on Friday. “We still have a transmission rate in that 7% to 8% range, so we have to remain vigilant with respect to infection control, especially within health care facilities.”
He likened the pandemic to a marathon — it’s perfectly fine to celebrate victories along the way, but the race isn’t over. The point being that the end goal isn’t to have COVID-19 infection numbers back to levels seen six months ago, it’s to put an end to as many new cases, severe cases and deaths as possible.
“I think it’s good for a community, especially our communities to feel good about how we’ve responded,” he said. “Let’s stay vigilant. Let’s not lose our edge; let’s not forget how serious this is. There are still Utahns dying from COVID-19 and when you compare to what we’ve been through, you can falsely conclude that, boy, things are OK because they’re so much better.
“But if you focus on the absolute number … those are people and families that are impacted in such a really hard way,” he continued. “I have a lot of empathy for the fact that this disease is still creating such burden for our communities and for individuals and for families. We owe it to them to stay vigilant and keep moving forward in the right ways until we can really tamp this thing down.”
There are a few possible hurdles between now and reaching herd immunity from COVID-19 that Briesacher addressed Friday.
One is that spring break at many Utah schools also began this weekend or are on the horizon. Briesacher recommended that families planning to travel during the break focus on activities that might be “more outdoor in orientation,” such as camping in small groups.
“We all saw the pictures from the beaches in Florida and I know we’re not going to be like that,” he said. “But there is a risk as there was during the Thanksgiving holiday. You saw the tremendous community response to come together and really mitigate the potential outcomes that could have come from that Thanksgiving holiday.”
The current statewide mandate is also set to expire on April 10 after Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill passed in the legislature this week to set that date. It’s worth noting that it will remain in place for schools and can also remain in place for businesses that decide to require masks.
Businesses like Harmons, Smith’s and Target have all said they will keep their requirements beyond that date. Intermountain Healthcare also announced it requires employees and patients to wear masks at its facilities even after April 10.
Briesacher said he views April 10 as the beginning of the “personal health mandate,” where individuals can make the decisions themselves to keep wearing masks and socially distancing in public places when possible to avoid the possibility of another uptick in cases.
He added Intermountain and other public health experts will continue to monitor the situation in case there is another rise in cases and as the future of COVID-19 beyond the pandemic takes shape.
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