On Feb. 25, the Centers for Disease Control announced a new framework for monitoring the status of the COVID-19 pandemic in communities based on new cases, new hospitalizations and hospital capacity. Utah will soon transition from using its own transmission index (which is based on the seven-day percent positivity rate, the 14-day case rate per 100,000 people, and the statewide intensive care unit utilization) to using the CDC’s metrics, and the Southeast Utah Public Health Department will transition along with the state. According to Utah’s metrics, Grand County, along with most of the state, is still in a high transmission category; under the CDC’s new metrics, Grand County will be considered at a medium transmission level.
The reason for the shift, according to CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at a Feb. 25 press briefing, is that vaccines, expanded testing capacity, and improved treatments have put the nation in a stronger position against the virus, and public health officials should direct their efforts toward protecting those at risk of severe illness and protecting the healthcare system from overextension. Statuses will be updated weekly.
The CDC’s advice for an area in medium transmission, Walensky said on Feb. 25, is for people to stay up-to-date with vaccines and to talk with their doctors about whether they may want to take additional precautions like wearing a mask. At a low community transmission level, people should stay current with vaccines and get tested if they’re sick; at a high transmission level, the CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask while indoors, including in schools.
Local and statewide case rates have dropped from high levels earlier this winter.
“Utah is in a markedly different position now than we were a month and a half ago,” said SEUPHD Director Bradon Bradford during an update at the Mar. 1 Grand County Commission meeting, noting that in January the county was averaging 20-30 new cases per day, and now that figure has dropped to one to two cases per day.
One reason Utah is transitioning to using the CDC’s metrics, Bradford said, is that as case numbers are dropping, many hospitals are more protective of patient data. During the highest case numbers of the pandemic, hospitals streamlined the sharing of data because it was generally agreed that urgency of the situation warranted quick, direct information sharing.
“As that pressure has eased, hospitals have returned to their normal data sharing procedures,” Bradford explained. Under normal protocols, data-sharing involves more paperwork and it goes through a specific chain of agencies. That means that by the time the SEUHD gets information from a Colorado hospital, for example, it may be too out-of-date to be useful.
“The data we’re getting regarding hospitalizations has really taken a step back,” Bradford said, noting that he wasn’t speaking specifically about Moab Regional Hospital. “Hospitals in general have been more reluctant to share data with us… whereas that data was readily flowing back and forth during the height of this, it’s been a little bit more protected, ironically, as those case numbers have dropped.”
Walensky said at the Feb. 25 press briefing that hospitals regularly report hospitalization metrics, which is one reason the CDC chose that as a reliable metric to use in determining COVID-19 levels in communities.
Bradford said vaccines continue to be readily available locally, and that testing will remain available as well, though it will shift from being available anytime to being by-appointment, as demand for testing has dropped significantly.
Commissioner Chair Gabe Woytek asked if there are still people coming to the health department to get their first dose of vaccine.
“If people are still coming in to get a vaccine for the first time, is there anything that you’ve noticed that it’s driving that sort of participation?” he asked. “What might we be able to do to encourage—to get more participation?”
Bradford said that a small number of first vaccine doses have been administered recently.
“I made a point of asking them what was happening,” Bradford said, and what seems to have changed people’s minds has been closeness to someone who had experienced a COVID-19 “scare.” In one case, Bradford said, someone was finally convinced by months of persuasion from their doctor.
“It seems to be that personal connection that really is helping to inform that type of decision at this point,” Bradford said.