Documented COVID cases in the Bear River Health District have been on a record-setting pace in the past week, a trend local health officials attribute in large part to the spreading of the highly infectious Omicron variant during Christmas holiday gatherings.
“It’s not surprising with the transmissibility of COVID as the Omicron variant that we are in this position with our case numbers. We kind of knew it was going to come, and it’s here,” Bear River Health Department spokeswoman Estee Hunt said. “That’s kind of what was expected with the increase, as that is about a two-week period past the gatherings of Christmas.”
According to the latest official data from the Bear River Health District — which includes Cache, Rich and Box Elder counties — the district saw a record 411 new documented COVID cases on Jan. 11, far exceeding the single-day record of 329 set in November 2020 during the first wave of the the coronavirus pandemic.
The seven-day case average as of Jan. 11 was 347, compared to 221 on the week of highest caseload in 2020.
The good news is that the local rate of new COVID infections remains well below those currently seen on the Wasatch Front.
According to BRHD epidemiologist Tenesha Stoker, the district’s seven-day per-capita rate (cases per 100,000 population) was at 183.5 on Tuesday. This compares to a rate of 396 in Salt Lake County, 386 in Davis County and 208 in Weber-Morgan counties.
The vast majority of the cases both here and statewide are believed to be the Omicron variant. Although individual tests don’t provide an immediate determination of which coronavirus variant a patient has, approximately 95% of selected samples sent to the Utah Public Health Department lab for sequencing in recent days have turned up as Omicron.
Hunt said although Omicron does not appear to be as severe as the previous two major COVID waves, health officials are not taking it lightly and are strongly urging public precautions.
“Right now I think the biggest message I’d like the public to understand is whether you test positive, whether you are awaiting test results or you’re choosing not to test, staying home is going to be critical to stopping the spread of this,” Hunt said.
The January case spike has been accompanied by high demand for testing, causing long lines and waits at the state-run testing station at Cache Valley Hospital in North Logan. Due to crowding, the station on Tuesday was moved to nearby Elk Ridge Park and appointments will now be required. There are currently five other testing sites in Cache Valley, all requiring appointments. Residents wanting further information regarding testing locations and how to make appointments should visit the website coronavirus.utah.gov.
Health district data indicates about 28 percent of people giving samples in Cache County over the past week tested positive for coronavirus. In Box Elder County, that number was closer to 22 percent.
In South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first documented late last year, cases have sharply declined after an initial surge. Stocker would not speculate on how local cases of Omicron might trend or whether it looks like they’ve peaked here yet.
“That’s something that we can’t speak to as of right now because we’re looking at two different countries, and their populations are different. We’re just beginning our wave, and so I think in the next few weeks we’ll be able to have more data to see whether we decrease rapidly or if it lingers a little bit longer,” she said.
A reported 38 percent of the past week’s districtwide COVID hospitalizations were classified as “breakthrough,” meaning the infections hit vaccinated individuals, but both Stoker and Hunt urged caution in interpreting breakthrough statistics.
“We have the highest vaccination rate that we’ve had in our community thus far with about 66%, so with the higher vaccination rate, breakthroughs will occur more often,” Stoker said. “And also remember that Omicron is more transmissible, so those two factors definitely influence that breakthrough rate. That does not mean that the vaccine is not working.”