COVID, omicron: Why risk of COVID-19 is now higher in 3 Utah counties

Two more counties in Utah, Salt Lake and Weber, were moved up this week to a medium level of risk for COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as cases continue to rise in the state.

Summit County had already been elevated earlier this month to medium, or yellow, status on the CDC’s nationwide map measuring what the agency calls the community levels of COVID-19 by county. The rest of Utah’s counties remain at a low, or green level of risk for the virus.

“I think this is evidence of the summer increase that we’ve been warning against,” Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said, urging residents to get their COVID-19 shots. “Now is the time for people to ensure they’re up to date, and get vaccinated or boosted if they’re due.”

The CDC advises everyone in a medium risk county to try to maintain improved ventilation throughout both private and public indoor spaces and keep up with their COVID-19 shots. Initial shots and a first booster dose are available for anyone 5 and older. Those 50 and older or with certain medical conditions can get a second booster shot.

Individuals who are at high risk for severe disease should consult with their health care providers about whether they should be masking up and taking other precautions, including testing for the virus, the CDC says. Those who live or spend time with people at high risk should consider wearing a mask around them and testing.

At the community level, public health agencies should step up protections, the CDC suggests, such as implementing testing for people exposed to COVID-19 at work, school or another community setting. In Utah, most testing and treatment shifted to private providers under Gov. Spencer Cox’s “steady state” pandemic response.

Rupp said there’s still free testing in the county, at Salt Lake Public Health Center and the Cannon Building in Salt Lake City; West Valley City Hall and Redwood Recreation Center in West Valley City; Thomas Jefferson Junior High in Kearns; Providence Hall High School in Herriman; and the old Workforce Services building in Midvale.

To register for free testing, or see other sites that may charge or ask for insurance, go to coronavirus.utah.gov.

“People should stay home from work, school and social activities if they have symptoms, and they should test,” Rupp said, “either via an at-home antigen (test) or at one of the seven free test sites available.”

The Weber-Morgan Health Department also had advice for residents.

“As we are seeing a rise in cases, we ask the public to help us by using the tools that we relied on these past two years,” the Weber-Morgan department’s executive director, Brian Cowan, said in a statement. The department continues to contact trace and work with people who test positive to slow the spread of the virus, he said.

“Vaccination is still the safest, most effective way to prevent serious illness and hospitalization. Boosters are now available to everyone over age 5, ”Cowan said. “Take steps to monitor yourself for symptoms, get tested and stay home if you are ill. Be mindful of those who are at-risk for complications and use masks, frequent hand-washing and continue to mask and social distancing when in crowded public places. ”

The CDC determines risk levels by county based on the number of weekly cases per 100,000 residents reported as well as the number of hospital admissions for the virus and how many hospital beds are filled with COVID-19 patients.

The way COVID-19 risk levels are calculated was changed by the federal agency earlier this year after the highly transmissible omicron variant drove cases to record levels around the county, adding the hospital metrics and doubling how many weekly cases per 100,000 residents it takes to hit a high level of transmission, to 200.

There’s been some criticism of using hospitalization and capacity in setting the levels since those are lagging indicators of virus spread. Utah has replaced its own metrics for determining risk with the CDC’s community levels, included as a map on the state’s coronavirus.utah.gov website.

Almost all of Utah – and much of the rest of the country – is in the bright red, high-risk category in a version of the CDC map using the previous standard of more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population in the past seven days combined with a 10% percent test positivity rate.

The CDC updates its assessments daily, but new COVID-19 data now comes from Utah only once a week. The Utah Department of Health reported Thursday that the state has seen another 5,611 cases of the virus over the past seven days, more than 25% increase in the average daily case count.

There have also been another dozen COVID-19 deaths since May 19, including a Utah County girl, between 1 and 14 years old, the state health department said. According to the state’s tabulations, there have been fewer than five deaths from the virus in that age group in Utah.

Friday’s CDC map shows nearly 21% of the counties nationwide are now at a medium risk level, almost a 6% increase. Most counties, more than 71%, are still at a low risk level, although that number has dropped by more than 4%.

While just under 8% of counties across the country at a high risk level, where universal masking is recommended, many of those are in highly populated areas of the Northeast, which has been hard hit by the latest omicron subvariants, which are even more transmissible than the original mutation.

Most of the Intermountain West remains at low or medium risk except for some counties in Montana and Colorado that are high. During last fall’s delta variant surge, the Intermountain West became the nation’s hot spot as that version of the virus spread from east to west.

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