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Utah passes 1 million COVID cases; Summit and Wasatch counties in high transmission

Utah, like most of the country, is seeing another COVID-19 case surge.

Utah has passed a major milestone – more than 1 million residents have contracted COVID since the pandemic began. An Intermountain Hospitals doctor offered tips on how to navigate the current surge in cases.

The one million figure sounds dramatic, but Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, says the real story is far worse.

“Right now," he said, "the case counts that we have to the Utah Department of Health or dramatic undercount given the number of home tests that are being used that are recorded into our state based registries.”

Utah recorded more than 7,800 new cases of COVID last week. Seven counties, including Summit and Wasatch, are currently in the high level of transmission.

Stenehjem said the surge that’s gripping the state and country is fueled by a variant of COVID-19 called BA-5. He said that’s in the omicron family but different from earlier omicron variants.

With so much undercounting, health experts uses wastewater data, rates of positivity and visits to the ER that result in positive diagnoses to try to ascertain how much COVID is in the community.

Despite the high numbers, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths are not spiking alarmingly – ICU levels have remained flat, though regular hospitalizations have increased over past several weeks.

Stenehjem said Utah isn’t going to implement mask mandates, so managing risk is an individual “personal risk reduction strategy.”

“There isn't one answer that fits every person," he said. "At this point, we really have to look to ourselves and say, What is my risk of getting COVID? What is the risk of me transmitting to high risk individuals? And what's that impact going to be on my life? At this point? High risk individuals, those that are older those have significant immunocompromised. Those are people that still absolutely need to be careful regardless of their vaccination status.”

He encouraged mask-wearing, saying infection can still lead to serious health challenges in anyone.

Look ahead past summer and into fall, Stenehjem said Utah’s overall rate of people being boosted is relatively low, which he called concerning. Among people who have been fully vaccinated, only half have gotten boosted.

He said health officials are anticipating an omicron-specific booster in the fall. Children who aren’t vaccinated yet should get currently available shots now so they’re protected when they head back into classrooms.

He described the current variant as “immune evasive,” meaning previous vaccines aren’t as effective at stopping infection. How transmissive it is isn’t understood yet. But vaccines are proven to lessen severity when people get sick now.

Statewide, Stenehjem said the good news is low hospitalization rates compared to previous points in the pandemic. He urged more mask-wearing for everyone in crowded indoor situations. He said he state also needs to make sure tests and treatment such as antiviral medications are available and easy to obtain for the public .

And he said Utah needs to put systems in place that allow sick children and adults to stay home when they’re sick, so they don’t spread the virus.