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Health, Science & Environment

Utah’s COVID-19 Cases Are Dropping, It’s Not Clear Exactly Why — But It’s A Welcomed Trend

A photo of a COVID-19 testing center.
Tricia Bobeda
/
KUER
Utah’s weekly average for positive tests was over 3,300 cases in late November. It’s since fallen to under 1,000.

After reaching record heights at the tail end of 2020, Utah’s rate of new COVID-19 cases have been on the decline over the last few weeks. Health officials reported 591 new cases Tuesday, bringing the state’s weekly average for positive tests down to just under 14%.

That average rate — referred to as “people over people” — does not include Utahns who have been tested multiple times for COVID-19 in a three-month span. It focuses on the number of “unique individuals” who tested positive divided by the “unique number of people tested.”

The weekly positive rate is still well above the 5% threshold public health officials recommend for limiting the spread of the virus, but it’s a welcome trend, said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Healthcare.

Webb attributes the decrease to people staying on top of physical distancing and mask wearing, but also growing population immunity. Between people who’ve contracted the virus over the last three months and those who’ve received the vaccine, he said about 20% of the state is immune.

“That's a rough estimate and it's not enough, but it is helping,” Webb said in a Facebook Live update Tuesday. “It's a very important thing to see more and more of the population immune, because coupling that with social distancing and the masking, it's driving our case counts down.”

Another reason for falling case numbers could be that more people are getting tested, said Charla Haley with the Utah Department of Health. She said the state has opened up testing for people without symptoms. They’ve also launched more mobile testing sites to target areas that don’t have widespread access to testing.

“There's a good likelihood that we're catching more people who don't know that they're positive, who can then take the prevention methods that we recommend and avoid exposing other people to the illness,” she said.

Still, Webb warned that future spikes in cases are still possible, especially as new deadlier and more contagious variants of the virus are emerging from the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. He said so far they don’t appear to have spread significantly in Utah. The state has only had four recorded cases of the UK variant, Haley noted.

But Webb said continued adherence to public health guidelines and speeding up the vaccine rollout will be key to keeping the state moving in the right direction.

“I think everybody should feel good about the efforts of the community,” Webb said. “And [we should] look at this as a race between the vaccination and continuing to do the right things to finish strong against the possibility of these variants. We want to limit the number of transmissions in the community so much that even if the variants do emerge, there just isn't enough transmission for them to become a problem.”

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