New COVID strains are spreading through Southern Utah but not putting people in hospital

ST. GEORGE — A word that once was common in everyday vocabulary up until about a year ago has been making a comeback recently — COVID-19. 

A set of positive home COVID-19 tests, St. George, Utah, June 22, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

That’s for two reasons: The disease that started as a pandemic that killed more than a million Americans and hundreds of Southern Utahns has had its biggest mutation since Omicron and regulatory agencies have approved an updated vaccine boost designed to stop the mutated form of the virus that causes it. 

Southern Utah has seen a significant uptick in the number of people infected in the last two weeks thanks to the new strains. But unlike the days of the pandemic, hospitalizations and, especially, deaths are a rarity now locally from COVID. But contracting the disease still means people missing time from work and a long night of restless coughing, all-over-the-body aches, fever and weakness. 

Dr. Benjamin Brooks, a molecular and cellular biologist and the clerkship director at Rocky Vista University in Ivins, said the virus that causes COVID-19 is just doing what a virus does: Becoming more infectious but less vicious. 

“It actually wants to propagate itself. It doesn’t want to kill us, generally speaking, it actually wants to attenuate,” Brooks told St. George News. “We’re now getting in a spot where the virus is probably going to be endemic, and it’s just going to be floating around like a lot of the other diseases we have that are around there. I think there is a still of a concern though, for the elderly especially.”

And like most respiratory diseases such as influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and bad colds, COVID-19 will remain a peak winter disease as the outdoor life of summer ends and people spend more time indoors away from the winter’s chill, Brooks said. 

Undated, colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 COVID virus particles (yellow) | Photo courtesy of National Institutes of Health, St. George News

And like influenza and RSV have been in the past, COVID-19 is now a leading killer of the elderly outside of heart disease or cancer –supplanting the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That can be a bigger concern in areas with a higher elderly population like Southern Utah. 

But for much of the population, herd immunity has taken hold as far as people not needing to go to the hospital or dying of COVID-19 – especially in Southern Utah. There have been a total of two deaths from COVID-19 in Southern Utah and 15 hospitalizations since June, according to the Utah Department of Health and Human Services. 

Even more striking is as opposed to 1 1/2 years ago when practically every patient in the then-overflowing intensive care unit of St. George Regional Hospital was a COVID-19 patient, there has not been a COVID-19 patient in the ICU since mid-June, according to Intermountain Health officials. 

Yet the new strains have caused an approximate 212% increase in the number of people locally infected with COVID-19 in the last month.

With regular, state-sponsored testing no longer available, sewage monitoring by Utah Department of Environmental Quality has become the main means of determining the extent of the number of COVID-19 infections in an area. 

In St. George, the amount of maximum gross concentration (mgc) of COVID-19 viral gene copies has gone from a steady 50 to 150 mgc throughout the summer to 438 now. In Cedar City, that number has gone from 63 mgc to 194 mgc. 

The sewage wells at Ash Creek in Hurricane were ahead of the other two cities, seeing a jump from 17 to 100 mgc in August but have held steady since and are at 77 mgc now. 

Graph showing the level of genes from the virus that causes COVID detected in sewage levels in three local cities between July 1 and Sept. 10, 2023 | Graphs courtesy of Utah Department of Environmental Quality, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Even so, the local hospitals are not seeing a return to the days of being packed with people suffering from COVID-19. 

“I’ve seen some more cases these last few weeks. But all the cases I’ve seen have all appeared to be mild, honestly,” Will Christensen, a nurse practitioner and the chief medical officer at Family Healthcare, said. “I can think of maybe one patient I know of that went to the ER, but they weren’t hospitalized. They were sent home.”

Outside Southern Utah, the new COVID-19 strains have been making headlines for increasing hospitalizations and deaths nationwide, but that is mostly in the Southeastern United States, especially Florida, which is the only state seeing triple-digits in the number of weekly deaths, according to the CDC, and more than twice that of similar-population states like Texas and California. 

Brooks said besides the natural progression of the virus, a reason why people are less likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 now comes down to immunity that has come from the vaccine or having had COVID-19 in the last year.

“We’ve all been exposed to COVID at this point. You probably have been exposed to COVID to the point where your immune system has developed some sort of protection for you,” Brooks said. “The end game is to reduce hospitalization, reduce death, and I think reducing transmission is the cherry on top. We’ve done a pretty good job of that in terms of getting vaccinated and our immune systems have done a pretty good job naturally of providing protection.”

With the new vaccine approved this week by the CDC and the Federal Drug Administration and a fall and winter ahead of what is now the COVID-19, flu and cold season, St. George News spoke with several experts to get answers to some of the main questions that people may have in regard to the current state of COVID-19, what to do if you get infected and how to avoid getting the worst effects of the disease.

Look for those frequently asked questions and answers on Tuesday.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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