Aug 7, 2023 - COVID

Utah braces for another COVID fall with better vaccines but less vigilance

Illustration of a covid particle reflected in a rearview mirror

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

COVID has ticked up slightly in Utah, joining a recent national rise in hospitalizations as fall approaches.

  • When the seasonal threat returns this year, fewer resources to track and treat the virus will be in place.

By the numbers: After infection rates in Utah hospital emergency rooms bottomed out in late June at 0.4% of all admissions, they crept up throughout July and now are around 0.6% to 0.7%, according to data from the state health department.

  • About a third of the state's wastewater testing sites showed rising concentrations of the virus in the sewage as of Friday.

Zoom out: COVID hospitalizations, testing positivity rates and emergency room visits have all increased slowly since mid-July, per the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Most of the country saw a "substantial" increase in the percentage of ER patients who tested positive last week, CDC data show.

Reality check: Hospitalizations and deaths this July and August are nowhere near the levels seen in late summer during the past three years, in Utah and nationwide.

  • Immunity from prior infections and vaccinations means the virus is unlikely to reach the same high levels seen during past fall and winter waves, Axios' Sabrina Moreno reports.

Yes, but: "We don't have the resources now to combat it like we did, and we don't have the political will to even push for those resources," said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and chief scientific officer for at-home testing company eMed.

  • This is in part due to the expiration of the public health emergency, leaving Americans with less access to free COVID tests and treatments for the first time since the pandemic began.
  • "It's going to leave already pretty strained health systems sort of naked out there on the street just trying to figure out what to do," Mina said.

Meanwhile, tracking the virus' spread has become more challenging with the end of the public health emergency, which cut off a regular stream of COVID data.

  • There's also "a lot we don't fully understand yet" about the risk of long COVID, which has disabled millions of Americans, said Michael Stevens, a system health care epidemiologist at West Virginia University.
  • "We know immunity wanes," Stevens said. "And we know it's hard to predict exactly who's going to have problems."

What they're saying: "It's kind of Russian roulette if you have a medical issue," said Jill Foster, division director of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota Medical School. "I worry that people, for their own risk perception, have decided that it's really not such a big deal."

The other side: Vaccines could help sidestep last year's "tripledemic" of RSV, COVID and influenza, said Nick Rupp, spokesperson for the Salt Lake County health department.

  • "The FDA recently approved the RSV vaccine for people 60 and older; we will have the usual seasonal influenza vaccine available with the strains expected to be circulating; and there will be a new COVID vaccine out specifically targeting the current Omicron variant," Rupp told Axios.

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