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Weight of the omicron surge shifts Utah’s COVID testing strategy

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox delivers an update about the state's response to the surge in cases of the omicron variant, Jan. 14, 2022.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox delivers an update about the state's response to the surge in cases of the omicron variant, Jan. 14, 2022.

If you have COVID symptoms, Utah’s state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said Friday you should assume you have the virus, stay home and isolate for at least five days. She said after that, as people go back into society they should wear a mask.

Nolen joined Gov. Spencer Cox and other state officials for a pandemic update as Utah has seen a major surge in cases since Christmas. The state health department reported a record 12,990 new cases Thursday. Around this same time in October, the state saw an average of about 1,400 new cases a day.

Due to how quickly omicron is spreading, Nolen noted that the benefit of testing has decreased.

When the pandemic first started, health and elected officials pressed people to get screened for the virus. The original idea was to get checked before you could spread it. But now, Utah is maxing out its testing capacity with sometimes hours-long waits and lengthy turnaround times for results.

On Thursday, health officials also reported an increase of 47,418 COVID tests. That is more than twice as many as the state processed in mid-October.

Both Nolen and Cox said that means people can be actively spreading the virus while waiting to find out if they’re positive. Cox said that has made it “virtually impossible” to contact trace.

Despite the new guidance, Nolen said the elderly, people who have underlying conditions, and those who are working with vulnerable populations should still get tested. She also asked organizations who are still holding mass gatherings and require screening beforehand to find different ways to ensure the safety of the event.

Pausing test-to-stay

The state also announced it is putting a pause on the “test-to-stay” program for schools. That guidance gave schools an opportunity to continue in-person learning if they noticed an increase in cases among students.

But omicron has rendered that ineffective as Nolen said “we are doing it too late.” She said just this week a school in Davis County had 250 kids test positive for the virus. Now, with the program on hold, schools can go to remote learning over the next couple of weeks, but they must have a plan to return safely to in-person instruction.

Even with the recent surge and massive delays in testing, the governor said the safest way to the end of the pandemic is to get vaccinated. He said vaccines and booster shots are working and while there are breakthrough cases, people are not going to the hospital at nearly the same rate as the unvaxxed.

Despite the latest trends, Cox ended the press conference saying he is “more optimistic than [he] has been at any point in this pandemic.” He hopes that with omicron spreading so quickly “it will give us the immunity we needed all along” to end the pandemic. And after the numbers come down, he believes “we will be able to return to normal.”

Ross Terrell is the managing editor at KUER.
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