COVID-19 Update: Utah encourages vaccinations, precautions against new variant

Rebekah Baker/ BYU Photo
The Utah Department of Health and Human Services is encouraging everyone to receive the updated vaccine. Epidemiologist Josh Benton said it is expected to come to Utah in the next few weeks. (Rebekah Baker, BYU Photo)

As fall in Utah begins, so does a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

From the second to the third week of September, there has been a 27.9% increase in reported cases of COVID-19 — as well as a 40.4% increase in people hospitalized with the virus, according to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.

The dominant variant of COVID-19 in the U.S. is EG.5, or “Eris,” according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It is a subvariant of Omicron.

Josh Benton, an epidemiologist at the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, said although the variant is not causing more severe illness or symptoms than past ones, it is better at dodging immunity.

“One unique thing to note about this variant is that it is a bit better at evading the immunity we may have from vaccination or past infection,” he said. “That is one reason that it is important to get the updated vaccine that will be rolling out within a couple of weeks.”

The graph shows reported COVID-19 cases from June to Sept. 2023. Cases have seen a steady increase in the late summer months. (Utah Department of Health and Human Services)

On Sept. 12, the CDC recommended an updated COVID-19 vaccine for 2023-2024. The vaccine is for everyone aged 6 months or older.

During last year’s fall and winter seasons, those who had received the 2022-2023 vaccine were more protected from severe illness and hospitalization than those who had not received it, according to the CDC.

Although the current number of COVID-19 cases is down from previous years, the CDC said the number of hospitalizations and deaths is high on their website.

Benton explained other factors contributing to this rise in cases, not only in Utah, but nationally.

“More people are travelling over the summer, more people are getting together, and the school year started recently,” he said.

Another potential factor is that many were vaccinated months ago or were infected last winter, meaning their immunity is waning, Benton said.

BYU student Gabriella Green said she tested positive for COVID-19 in August 2023. She was on a cruise when she got the virus, but she visited a doctor at Intermountain Healthcare in Provo when she returned to Utah, she said.

“I was having chest pain,” Green said. “When I went in, they thought I was having a heart attack.”

Green said she went to the emergency room after feeling like she had a pinch in her chest, but later took a COVID-19 test that came back positive. Her doctor explained that the pain in her chest was a common symptom among others coming in recently who had been infected with the new strain.

Benton said that as this season approaches, people should stay home if they are feeling sick. Other than COVID-19, people should be worried about the flu and RSV going around as the weather gets colder, he said.

Leisha Nolen, an epidemiologist for the Utah DHHS, said in the department’s newsletter: “We want to encourage everyone to get vaccinated and protect themselves against flu and COVID-19. It is vitally important that people who are at risk of getting severely ill from respiratory illnesses get vaccinated.”

According to the CDC, those without underlying medical conditions may still experience serious illness due to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 vaccine will be available in Utah by the end of the month, Benton said. Flu vaccines are already available at pharmacies and doctors’ offices.

“These vaccines are an important part of protecting yourself and your community,” he said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that households can once again order four free COVID-19 rapid tests for home delivery beginning Sept. 25th.

Additionally, flu shots will be offered on BYU campus through their Flu Shot Clinic Sept. 25-28 from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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