Omicron is bearing down on Utah and driving up the state’s COVID-19 case count to record levels, but health experts are hopeful the incredibly contagious variant will peak relatively quickly.
“Maybe it spreads so quickly, it burns itself out very quickly. Which means it’s just a matter of hunkering down for maybe just a few weeks,” said Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
The Utah Department of Health is not reporting daily COVID-19 statistics Friday because of the New Year’s holiday, but tweeted “unofficial data show about 4,700 new cases. This would be one of the largest, if not the largest, single-day case count.”
The most cases reported in a single day in Utah is 4,706, on Dec. 30, 2020. Over the past few days, the state’s case counts have spiked to the highest levels since early January, due to omicron and holiday celebrations.
“Omicron is here, and it is on the move. If you haven’t been vaccinated or received your booster dose, it’s critical to do so now” the agency tweeted, urging Utahns to mask up at gatherings, and to stay home and get tested tested immediately if they have any symptoms.
Cases had been on the decline in Utah until shortly before Christmas, after a surge caused by the delta variant turned the state and much of the rest of the Intermountain West into the nation’s hot spot for COVID-19 in early November.
But the government in South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified in late November, announced Thursday that cases are plummeting after a sharp spike, a trajectory a health official there described as “staggering,” according to The New York Times.
“Peak in four weeks and precipitous decline in another two,” Fareed Abdullah, of the South African Medical Research Council, reportedly said, calling the omicron surge “a flash flood more than a wave” that resulted in a small increase in deaths.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s top medical adviser, predicted this week the United States would see an end to the latest wave of COVID-19 by the end of January, given the drop seen in South Africa.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a series of tweets from his personal account Thursday that while “the next few weeks may be a little bumpy” as omicron drives a surge in cases in the state, the new variant may spell the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The best news is that several experts now believe this wave will help us move from pandemic to endemic phase and get things back to normal,” the governor said, referring to the difference between a worldwide outbreak and more manageable regional spread.
Cox advised Utahns to take precautions to slow the spread of omicron, even though he said the new variant may be less “dangerous” than the delta variant that’s apparently being crowded out by an even more contagious strain of COVID-19.
Booster shots of COVID-19 vaccine are still the best defense against all variants, and N95 masks offer an extra layer of protection against the virus, the governor said, urging Utahns to avoid large crowds and stay home if they feel sick.
Some see the U.S. moving into a “soft” shutdown because of omicron, and in places slammed by the variant, sickened employees have stalled daily life, jamming hospitals and forcing store closures, flight cancellations and other service interruptions.
“It’s always a balance,” Kim said. “Something as transmissible as omicron, we’d have to completely shut down, no interactions at all, if we’re going to stop the spread of this virus,” but that’s not likely in Utah or much of the rest of the country.
He said that means Utahns are going to “have to make some tough decisions” about what’s now an increased risk of getting COVID-19, with the omicron variant already estimated to be the cause of more than 70% of all cases in the state.
Utahns may want to opt for a more low-key New Year’s Eve celebration, Kim said, and wait for a break in the climbing case counts before engaging in other activities that could expose them unnecessarily to the variant, like eating out.
Canceling a restaurant reservation because omicron is raging through the state is no different than monitoring weather reports before heading out on a road trip to avoid driving through a snowstorm, the professor said.
“That’s something that I don’t think is too much to ask, just to kind of minimize (risks) and be a little more careful for the next two or three weeks. Chances are, it’s milder. But we just don’t know,” Kim said.
Utahns are better off facing down omicron than they were dealing with earlier versions of COVID-19 last winter largely thanks to vaccines, now available to anyone 5 and older. Many have some immunity, too, from previous bouts with the disease.
The professor said omicron may be a sign of what COVID-19 looks like going forward.
“Quite honestly, this may be in our future. We may see spikes like this again and we may need to hunker down for a little while, get over it, and then go back to our lives,” Kim said. “I think that’s something that unfortunately will be part of the ‘new’ normal.”
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