Utah COVID cases are increasing; Health experts urge Utahns to get updated vaccines

RSV vaccinations for young children and people over 60 are also recommended.

(Melissa Majchrzak | Primary Children’s Hospital) Dr. Pediatric Infectious Diseases Chief Andrew Pavia interacts with a child who received a COVID-19 vaccination on November 5, 2021.

As the number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations slowly increases in Utah, medical experts at University of Utah Health are urging people to get the latest vaccinations — and get vaccinated against flu and RSV.

“COVID is evolving. … It’s a dynamic virus that’s constantly changing,” Andrew Pavia, chief of U. Health’s division of pediatric infectious diseases, said during a news conference Friday.

Vaccines are proving effective against current COVID variants, including EG.5 or “Eris” and FL.1.5.1, Pavia said. He noted that another variant, BA.2.86, is “not living up to its potential” – because it is not spreading as quickly as initially feared and both vaccines and previous COVID infections are proving effective against it. “We’re watching it. But right now it doesn’t seem to be much of a threat.”

Overall, “the latest news is pretty good for a change,” Pavia said. “We are currently quite well positioned with the vaccines. We expect them to work pretty well.”

But the number of COVID cases and hospitalizations have still increased over the past three months. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at U. Health, also acknowledged that hospitals are doing far fewer COVID tests than during the pandemic.

In the first week of June, 25 positive cases were reported in the US health system, but since then there has been a gradual upward trend that has become “even more dramatic over the last six weeks.” More than 200 cases of COVID were reported last week.

Hospitalizations have also increased since June, from a low of five to about 15. Almost all people hospitalized with COVID are either unvaccinated or undervaccinated, meaning they have not received a booster shot.

“So, good news – the vaccines are still effective,” Vinik said. “And we expect this new booster will be even more effective at preventing cases and hospitalizations.”

New vaccines significantly reduce the risk of hospitalization

It’s important to stay up to date on COVID vaccination because the virus continues to mutate and immunity “wanes over time,” Pavia said. “So protection only lasts a few months against any infection,” although there is still “measurable protection for up to a year” against severe cases requiring hospitalization.

“It won’t be perfect protection,” but it will “significantly reduce your risk of ending up in the hospital,” he said. Especially for those who have asthma, heart disease or are pregnant.

The experts on Friday also pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that everyone over 60 get an RSV vaccination to prevent “serious illness” and hospitalizations. These vaccines are expected to be available in Utah “fairly soon.”

And there is also a new RSV vaccination – monoclonal antibodies – for infants. “Children are at really high risk of ending up in the hospital with RSV in the first six months of life,” Pavia said. “About 2% of all children need to be hospitalized because of RSV. … When you consider that there’s a one in 50 chance that your baby will end up in the hospital and not be able to breathe and then eat, being able to avoid that seems like a pretty good deal.”

It’s expected to be available in Utah in a few weeks.

The side effects of the vaccine are relatively minor

University of Utah health experts made several other points during Friday’s press conference, including:

• The two new COVID vaccines are MRNA vaccines, with possible side effects such as sore arms, headaches and “a little bit of fever and fatigue,” Pavia said. “Some people react more strongly than others. We do not expect any new side effects.”

• There appears to be no “demonstrable risk” of the new vaccines causing myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) in young men. “Right now the risks are very, very low,” Pavia said. “So the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

• Vinik said well-fitting masks, particularly N95 or KN95 masks, continue to be “very effective” in preventing the spread of COVID, flu and RSV. However, he does not foresee a return of the mask requirement. “These are individual decisions that people make. … We certainly encourage people who are at risk of serious outcomes due to underlying medical conditions to wear masks because it will protect them.”

The CDC’s current recommendation is that people who test positive for COVID should stay home for five days and then wear a mask when they go outside for another five days to avoid infecting others

• The panel recommended getting vaccinated as soon as possible. They said there is no problem getting vaccinated against COVID and flu at the same time. Although it is possible to get vaccinated against COVID, flu and RSV at the same time, they recommended avoiding it.

“Common sense is that it increases the likelihood that you won’t feel well,” Pavia said.

For more information about receiving a COVID vaccination in Utah, visit Coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine/.

Justin Scaccy

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