Utah medical officials prepare for COVID variant. Is omicron worth the concern?

Stock photo. | Photo by Teka77/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — For the first time since July, areas of Southern Utah are no longer seeing the highest rate of transmission of COVID-19. At the same time, a new variant of the virus has raised the alarm of health officials worldwide who fear it may be a more contagious and deadly form of the disease – the key word being “may.” 

Stock photo.| Photo by
Kateryna Onyshchuk /iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

On Thursday, the Utah Department of Health said that Garfield and Kane counties have moved below a high rate of transmission in the COVID-19 Transmission Index. Washington, Iron and Beaver counties remain in the high range. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Utah Department of Health recommend that in high transmission areas people wear masks in indoor areas where physical distancing isn’t possible to avoid infection. 

There has been no let up on the side of hospital visits and deaths, as 14 people have been added to the number of people who have died of COVID-19 in Southern Utah since Thanksgiving, according to the Utah Department of Health. 

A new form of the virus has caused a new uncertainty as to whether the rest of Southern Utah will see its rates of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 decrease anytime soon. 

All about omicron

The information surrounding the omicron variant of COVID-19 contains several “ifs,” and not as many facts.

Stock photo showing a comparison of different strains of the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 | Photo by
CIPhotos/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The facts are in the last two weeks, a mutated form of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found that has many more mutations than any previous form of the virus, and it has already been confirmed to have spread worldwide, including in the United States. 

By its nature, the virus constantly mutates – most of which are insignificant. But a few have been noted as “significant variants” by the World Health Organization and designated with a letter of the Greek alphabet, with the delta variant the most prominent in Utah and the U.S. This new variant has been designated as omicron. 

From there, health experts say that’s where the “ifs” come in. The mutations could mean a virus that attaches easier to cells like the delta variant did. But it could also mean the opposite. 

Omicron, with its many mutations, could also be what medical experts have previously expressed to St. George News as their greatest fear concerning COVID-19: A variant that can spread like delta and is also able to more easily get past the vaccines.

“Omicron has more than 50 mutations in it and delta had about nine. Potentially those mutations can lead to different characteristics for the virus,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare. “It could be more contagious. It can be less contagious. We just don’t know yet.”

Stock photo illustration showing the virus that causes COVID-19 as a suction cup ball | Photo by Elena Kopusova/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The main mutations are to the proteins that look like spokes around the circular virus. Those spokes are what latch on to cells, causing infection. 

The virus could be compared to a suction cup ball that a child could pick up in the toy aisle at Walmart. 

In the case of the delta variant, a few suction cups were changed. Delta was first detected in India last September and was first detected in Utah about two months later. It has taken over as the prominent form of the virus and caused the large surge that has kept Southern Utah hospitals near or above capacity since August. 

In the case of omicron, which was first detected in South Africa, almost all of the suction cups are changed. Whether those changes have made that ball able to stick better, like it did the delta variant, is still unclear. 

What is clear, Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of infectious diseases at University of Utah, said is the potential for more deadly variants will exist even in Utah as long as the percentage of those immunized remains lower and the rate of virus transmission remains high.

“Variants happen in areas of high transmission. Utah right now has very high levels of transmission and has had it for a while,”  Swaminathan said. “Every place where there’s high transmission there’s a chance for a variant that can be more dangerous.” 

The CDC has announced two infections with the omicron variant in the U.S. in the last two days – one in California and another in Minnesota who officials say may have contracted it at an anime convention in New York City. Both patients were vaccinated and have had no more than mild symptoms, officials said.   

File photo of Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, medical director of antibiotic stewardship for Intermountain Healthcare, seen during a Zoom teleconference on Dec. 4, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

Stenehjem said while there has been no indication yet as to whether the omicron variant is able to hinder the protection of the vaccines, there has been some early evidence that omicron is more able to affect people who have already had COVID-19, negating any natural immunity. 

Swaminathan admits there may be an “overabundance of caution.” At the same time, he said a lot of that caution is warranted and compared it to an approaching hurricane.  

“I used to live in Florida, and if there’s a hurricane out in the gulf you are concerned and you get shutters but you don’t get in a car and drive out of there. You just have to be concerned and prepared as you can be,” Swaminathan said. “(Omicron) is likely here and if it’s very transmissible, it will spread especially with large parts of the population unvaccinated.”

For the general Southern Utah population, Swaminathan said a variant more transmissible than delta will not really mean much change as much as a need to consider more mitigations like wearing masks in public, indoor places and either getting a COVID-19 vaccine if unvaccinated or getting a booster if already inoculated.  

The biggest problem, he said, will be for the hospitals, which have not really seen much of a let up since the delta variant surge began during the summer.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, St. George Regional Hospital has remained as of early this week at around 84% capacity and the intensive care unit at 88% with half the ICU filled with COVID-19 patients.   

“All of our ICUs are already operating at high capacity. If there’s something that makes things worse, it doesn’t matter if you have a heart attack or a broken leg, it’s a big problem,” Swaminathan said. “Until we get down to a situation where our health care system isn’t at a crisis point, we’re going to have to be worried about that.”

Representatives with the local Southwest Utah Public Health Department did not respond to requests for comment.

New data shows unvaccinated source of most COVID deaths, hospitalizations

On Thursday, the Utah Department of Health released more detailed data on the number of how many Utahns vaccinated against COVID-19 have been hospitalized and died of the disease. 

Graph as of Dec. 2, 2021 shows the number of those hospitalized for COVID-19 in Utah between those unvaccinated in gold and vaccinated in blue | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

And the data shows it is a small percentage. Of the 1,554 Utahns who have died of COVID-19 since February, 80.9%, or 1,257, have been unvaccinated. And about 75% of those who died that were vaccinated were over 70 years old. 

Overall, 3,545 in Utah and 453 people in Southern Utah have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.

The Utah Department of Health said it has switched to a more computer-based counting of breakthrough infections, hospitalizations and deaths that had been previously done manually, creating a more accurate picture. 

That data shows that if a person under 50 locally is vaccinated for COVID-19 and contracts the virus, they are unlikely to be hospitalized or die of the disease. According to the data, a person under 50 is 23.7 times more likely to die of COVID-19 if they get infected and are not vaccinated.  

Of the 237 Utahns under 50 years old who have died of COVID-19 since February, less than 10 have been vaccinated, meaning about 96% of those under 50 who have died of COVID-19 since inoculations have been available have been unvaccinated. And of the 40 Utahns under 30 who have died of COVID-19 since February, none were vaccinated. 

CDC and other health data shows that out of the more than 400 million people in the U.S. who have received a COVID-19 vaccine since the start of the year, three have died directly because of a side effect of receiving the vaccine. All three were recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and were three of the 54 people who have had a rare blood clot side effect that is treatable.

Chart compares the number of COVID-19 patients who are unvaccinated against COVID-19 vs. those who are among Intermountain Healthcare’s hospitals as of Nov. 29, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News | Click to enlarge

According to the CDC, about 336,249 Americans have died of COVID-19 in the same amount of time – enough people to fill Dixie State’s Greater Zion Stadium 41 times. 

According to the Utah Department of Health as of Thursday, 44% of Southern Utahns are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with the most in the Ivins/Santa Clara area (50.8% fully vaccinated) and the lowest number in the Hurricane/LaVerkin area (37.8%).

Stenehjem said while it may be 10 to 14 days before there is a true picture of how bad omicron can be, it’s clear there’s one way to be ready for it.

“What we can say if you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated,” Stenehjem said. “If you’ve been previously infected and not been vaccinated, vaccinate now.”

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Thursday, according to Utah Department of Health)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 43,988 (7-day average of 78.43 per day, down 4% in last week)

Active cases: 1,638 (falling since Nov. 18)

  • Washington County (High in Transmission Index): 419.12 per 100K rate in 14 days, falling since Nov. 18)
  • Iron County (High): 473.47, falling
  • Kane County (Moderate): 202.17, falling
  • Garfield County (Low): 198.02, falling
  • Beaver County (High): 399.35, falling

Hospitalized: 47 (rising)

Deaths: 453 (20 since Nov. 18)

New infections per day in Southern Utah:

  • Saturday (Nov. 27): 41
  • Sunday (Nov. 28): 57
  • Monday (Nov. 29): 72
  • Tuesday (Nov. 30): 62
  • Wednesday (Dec. 1): 122
  • Thursday (Dec. 2): 131

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,265 (falling)

Fully vaccinated in  Southern Utah: 115,118 (44% fully vaccinated)

  • St. George: 46.9% 47.48% fully vaccinated (+0.58% since Nov. 18)  
  • Cedar City: 39.53% (+0.5%) 
  • Washington City: 43.06% (+0.52%) 
  • Ivins/Santa Clara: 50.78% (+0.51%) 
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 37.77% (+0.47%)  
  • Enterprise/Veyo/Springdale/Hildale: 43.56% (+0.32%) 
  • Beaver/Garfield/Kane counties: 43.17% (+0.42%)

Southern Utah schools active COVID-19 infections (as of Wednesday, according to Utah Department of Health)

NOTE: Utah Department of Health currently provides only ranges of the number of infections in each district, rather than exact figures. Figures may be an overall undercount as not all infections among students are reported to the state.

    • Washington County School District: 52 to 127 (rising since Nov. 12)
    • Iron County School District: 11 to 44 (falling)
    • Kane County School District: 1-4 (steady)
    • Garfield County School District: 2-8 (steady)
    • Beaver County School District: 1-4 (steady)
    • Southwest Utah Charter Schools: 12-28 (steady)
    • Southwest Utah Private Schools: 0 (falling)

Schools in yellow (In danger of moving to test-to-stay): None
Schools in red (Students/staff must test negative to attend): None
Top 5 schools: Vista School (Southwest Utah Charter) 6 active infections, Little Valley School (Washington) 6, Sunrise Ridge Intermediate (Washington) 6, Pine View Middle (Washington) 5, Crimson View School (Washington) 5, Desert Hills High (Washington) 5

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Those who can currently get the first dose of the vaccine: Everyone ages 5 and over. Those 5-18 can only receive the Pfizer vaccine. Use vaccinefinder.org to find clinics that have the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Those who can receive the second dose: Those who received their first injection 28 days or more before the appointment time.
  • Those who can receive a booster dose: Those who received Pfizer or Moderna at least six months ago and are 18 or older.
  • Those who received Johnson & Johnson at least two months ago and are 18 or older. Booster shots can be of any form of COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The Southwest Utah Public Health Department remains online appointment only. Some pharmacies and stores are offering walk-up appointments. Check the links below before going.
  • Must wear a short-sleeve shirt at appointment and should have a personal ID.
  • Vaccines are free of charge.

Washington County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department St. George office, 620 S. 400 East, St George

For hours and more information: Click here 

Iron County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Cedar City office, 260 DL Sargent Dr., Cedar City, 84721.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Kane County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Kanab office, 445 N. Main St., Kanab.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Garfield County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Panguitch office, 601 Center St., Panguitch.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Beaver County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Beaver Office,  75 1175 North, Beaver.

For hours and more information: Click here 

St. George Regional Hospital/Intermountain Healthcare:

Where: 400 East Campus St. George Regional Hospital,  544 S. 400 East, St. George.

Reservations: Click to register

FourPoints Health:

Where: Various locations.

For hours and more information:: Click here

Revere Health:

Where: Revere Health Campus,  2825 E. Mall Drive, St. George.

Reservations: Call (435) 673-6131 to determine if the vaccine is available.


Where: 745 N Dixie Dr in St. George and 915 Red Cliffs Dr. in Washington City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 1189 E. 700 South in St. George and 3520 Pioneer Parkway in Santa Clara.

Reservations: Click to register

Lin’s Marketplace:

Where: 1930 W. Sunset Blvd. and 2928 E. Mall Drive in St. George, 1120 State St. in Hurricane and 150 N Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Smith’s Food and Drug:

Where: 20 N. Bluff St. and 565 S. Mall Drive in St. George and 633 S. Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 275 S River Rd. in St. George.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 2610 Pioneer Rd. in St. George, 625 W. Telegraph St. in Washington City, 180 N. 3400 West in Hurricane and 1330 S. Providence Center Dr. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Family pharmacies:

Where: Several locations

Reservations: Use vaccinefinder.org to find a location near you

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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