As the second dose of COVID-19 vaccinations rolls out for frontline and healthcare workers, the percent-positivity of testing shows a high amount of community spread both statewide and in the Bear River Health District.
Of the 317 new tests in Cache County reported on the BRHD website on Tuesday, more than one third were positive, as has been the trend in the district over the past week. The rolling 7-day average percent-positivity is 36.1% in Cache County.
“It continues to increase, which means we know that we have the disease at a high level in our community. That’s concerning,” said Jordan Mathis, the incoming director of the Bear River Health Department, at the Logan Municipal Council meeting on Tuesday. “It’s higher than the state average, which is just over 20%. … (With) Bear River hospitalizations, we’re averaging, on a 14-day period, almost three hospitalizations per day. So that’s concerning for us.”
On the flip side, it’s hard to determine any trends from the percent-positivity because of the low testing numbers, according to Caleb Harrison, an epidemiologist with BRHD.
“Since really the end of November, kind of with the spike in cases, the average number of tests each week has steadily fallen from where it was around 1,100 new tests a day to approximately about 600 to 700,” he said. “There are a lot of reasons why cases could stay contained, as we catch cases quicker. A lot of it remains to be determined.”
With schools resuming, that adds more tests due to the governor’s requiring university student tests, as well as requiring athletes, performance groups and clubs in K-12 schools be tested weekly due to the previous high numbers in those demographics.
“I anticipate the average weekly test numbers to go back up now that schools are back in session, especially when USU is back in session,” Harrison said. “And I don’t know if that will make percent-positivity fall, but it will influence it so it does not rise as high as it has been.”
Utah State University will not resume classes until Jan. 19, and rather than testing every student every two weeks, the university announced Tuesday that students and faculty will be tested when they return to campus, then randomly or as needed due to exposure or symptoms.
Another way the state is attempting to gauge how much the virus exists in the community is offering mobile testing sites in underserved areas — such as Monday and Tuesday’s pop-up testing in Hyrum.
The goal is “to get the word out and test as many people as possible,” said Phil Rosell, who directed the free mobile testing event.
With the Provo-based Utah chapter of Nomi Health, and in conjunction with the Utah Department of Health, Rosell has overseen dozens of semi-permanent testing clinics as well as the mobile “van tours” to rural areas like Hyrum.
UDOH said it was targeting areas for the mobile sites based on a number of factors, which included high positivity rates, low testing rates and elevated detection of COVID-19 RNA in wastewater systems.
In his presentation to the Logan Municipal Council on Tuesday, Mathis said Logan’s wastewater showed a stable but elevated amount, and Hyrum’s was even greater.
Rosell said the goal is to not only help give students and workers reassurances after the holiday season but to help the community return to normal as possible.
“You know, a lot of people don’t want to be tested or just don’t believe in it or whatever, but better safe than sorry, right?” he said. “If you come get tested, you know if you have it or not. … The more we know, we can hopefully put an end to this someday soon.”
Melissa Neimoyer, the head nurse who oversaw the pop-up in Hyrum, said more than 500 people were tested Monday and Tuesday in an almost steady stream.
When Utah received the first round of vaccines against COVID-19, it was heralded by Utah Department of Health officials as the light at the end of the tunnel, but delays have lengthened an already stretched timeline.
The Bear River Health Department alone received 3,300 doses and had administered 2,095 as of Tuesday, according to Director Mathis.
“We have the capacity over the next three days to do 2,200 more, but we only have 1,205 (doses) left,” he told the council on Tuesday. “It’s not a good thing. We actually have more resources to get the vaccine in people’s arms than we actually have the supply to do so.”
Though the first people to receive the Pfizer vaccine in Utah, like workers at LDS Hospital, were able to get the second dose on Tuesday, the low supply has affected rollouts throughout the state, according to Dr. Tamara Sheffield — the medical director of community health and prevention for Intermountain Healthcare — in a press conference on Wednesday.
“What we do understand, being on the front-end receiving (vaccinations), is that the first allocations that we were given were reduced by the CDC, which has shifted our timing by a couple of weeks,” she said. “So it’s not necessarily shifting it dramatically, but we have received less than we thought at the very beginning.”
Sheffield was hopeful as she added vaccinations are and will continue “to ramp up” in the coming weeks.
Those receiving priority vaccination status currently are frontline workers like EMS, police and fire departments as well as non-hospital health care providers like dentists through the excess doses in some hospitals along with local health departments’ supplies. Federal contracts were made with pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS to inoculate assisted living centers and long term care facilities.
Mathis said next in line are teachers and those over the age of 75, though when additional doses of the vaccine will be available is uncertain. At the moment, it’s projected for the end of January, but Mathis said “as soon as we get the OK to move to that priority population, we’ll be doing everything we can to get the word out.”