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As people gather to celebrate Christmas and the New Year in the coming days, health experts are urging caution as the latest variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 begins to infiltrate Utah.

The omicron variant of the virus has been spreading rapidly through parts of Europe in recent weeks and has now taken hold in parts of the United States. It was first discovered in Utah on Dec. 3, and experts say it will likely cause another surge of infections in the state heading into 2022.

Based on the latest testing methods, as of last week the new variant was accounting for somewhere around 6% of all new COVID cases found in Utah, said Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare.

In a media briefing held virtually on Friday, Webb called omicron “the Houdini of COVID variants” for its enhanced ability to infect people whose bodies have already built immunity, either through vaccination or a prior infection.

With new data showing omicron to be two to three times more contagious than the delta variant, he said it won’t take long for it to become the dominant strain of the virus in Utah.

“This particular strain is extremely effective at causing infection in the large airways of the lung, to a much greater degree than delta,” Webb said.

Contrary to early reports when it was first spreading around South Africa, he said omicron is just as likely as other variants to cause severe and potentially life-threatening COVID cases, especially among more vulnerable populations such as unvaccinated people and those with weakened immune systems.

“That’s discouraging because this variant is sure to increase cases,” he said. “We can expect to see a significant impact in terms of hospitalizations, ventilations and deaths.”

The Bear River Health Department reported that the official COVID-19 case count for Box Elder County since the beginning of the pandemic surpassed 10,000 last week, with 103 deaths attributed to the disease countywide as of Friday, meaning approximately one in every 97 cases in Box Elder has resulted in death. That’s nearly triple the death rate in Cache County, where one in every 282 cases has proven fatal.

The numbers provided by BRHD for Box Elder County have been trending in the right direction, as the average number of daily new cases has fallen by more than half over the past month to about 16 at the end of last week.

Despite the declining case numbers in recent weeks, hospitals in Tremonton and Brigham City reported few or no available beds last week, as hospitalizations for other respiratory illnesses and influenza are going through their typical holiday-season spikes.

“The hospitalizations are high,” said Box Elder County Commissioner Jeff Scott, who also sits on the Bear River Board of Health. “That’s not 100% due to COVID, but if somebody does get COVID, it’s tough if the beds are already full.”

Fifty-eight percent of eligible Box Elder County residents have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while Cache County has reached the two-thirds milestone with a 66.7% vaccination rate as of Friday, according to BRHD data.

Webb said the silver lining is that Utah residents and hospitals still have some limited time to prepare for the full arrival of omicron in the state, thanks to the experiences of other parts of the country and the world where it has already become widespread.

In order to maximize protection from the new variants, he said everyone should have three “experiences” with the coronavirus, such as a two-dose vaccination course plus a booster shot, or two vaccine doses for those who have already had a COVID infection.

Taken in conjunction with everyday precautions like social distancing and mask wearing, Webb said vaccination is the best option for keeping omicron at bay, or at least minimizing its impact now that it has arrived in Utah. For those experiencing symptoms commonly associated with COVID-19, he said getting tested and staying away from gatherings is crucial.

“Understand your individual risk,” he said. “It’s important with the holidays that we also take advantage of this time to make preparations, so that when omicron does significantly impact the COVID landscape in Utah we’re prepared from a health care delivery standpoint, but also from an individual responsibility standpoint.”

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