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Utah leaders announce new COVID-19 testing recommendations

Gov. Cox, health officials say stay home if sick, don't get tested if already symptomatic

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Daily Herald | Jan 14, 2022

Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in Salt Lake City. Cox cast doubt on the efficacy of mask-wearing as health leaders made some of their most impassioned pleas yet for state residents to mask up and get vaccinated. Cox, a Republican, said his administration is encouraging people to wear masks but said it is unclear whether they are effective against the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.

If you have cold-like symptoms, act as if you have COVID-19 and stay home for five days, state and health officials said Friday during a press briefing headed by Gov. Spencer Cox.

Because of the overwhelming amount of infection in the community, officials also urged people not to get tested unless they are at high risk for complications.

“We know if you have symptoms, you most likely have COVID, so we are recommending people who have symptoms to act as if you have a confirmed case, stay home for five days and then wear a mask for another five days if you are feeling better,” said Utah Department of Health epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen. “You don’t need to go and get tested unless you have underlying conditions. Because omicron is so contagious, it’s more important to stay away from people. There are so many cases going around now that the benefit of getting the test is decreased.”

Nolen said the state has limited testing capacity and urged the public to save those tests for individuals who really need them, such as the elderly, immunocompromised and those who work with vulnerable populations such as long-term care and other health care facilities.

“We are also pausing the test-to-stay program for now and it will be on hold until the Legislature further evaluates it next week,” Nolen said. “There are a huge number of kids who are already positive. Just yesterday in the Davis County schools that we tested, 250 kids tested positive, so we’re behind the ball. We started the program to prevent the spread, but too many kids already have it. Right now, we just can’t support that level of mass testing.”

The reason for long testing lines has to do with the lack of home testing kits the state ordered but never arrived, Cox said.

“That lead directly to longer lines but we are hopeful we’ll receive hundreds of thousands of home tests over the next week or two,” he said.

Cox said since Christmas day, COVID-19 has risen from 1,200 positive cases per day to over 9,500. Hospitalizations are up from 434 to 638 during that same time frame.

“Omicron is very different. It’s much more contagious and much more transmissible and very hard to keep up with,” Cox said. “The delta variant was two times more contagious than alpha. Omicron is two to four times more contagious than delta, so we’re talking about millions of virus particles that people are shedding and it’s happening so quickly it’s harder to contain.”

The good news, Cox said, is that omicron is 25% less severe than delta and a little more than 70% of Utahns are now vaccinated.

“All of these things are helping lower hospitalizations and deaths but it’s putting a strain on our health care system and education system because now doctors and nurses and teachers and other staff are out for five days,” he said.

Cox said the most important way to fight the virus is to get vaccinated and boosted. He claimed cloth masks don’t work at all and surgical masks don’t work much better against omicron.

“Most experts looking at the surgical masks are saying they probably don’t work well against omicron. One expert told me cloth masks are no more than window dressing,” Cox said. “That’s because we are shedding millions more viral load and the virus stays in the air for around 20 minutes. So the recommendation for mask wearing is now the N95 masks and even then, it’s how you wear them that’s important.”

Cox said another reason to put more importance on vaccination is the fact that a lot of people don’t wear masks correctly. Many people pull them down to take a breath of fresh air, others don’t cover their noses.

“And then you go to a restaurant all masked up and you pull it down to eat and drink – and the virus knows somehow it’s not supposed to infect us,” he said. “That’s just not a thing. If you are vaccinated and boosted and a healthy person, you make that decision to wear the mask, but if you are around those who are at risk or you are at risk, an N95 can really help.”

In conclusion, Nolen said officials are reaching out to businesses and groups holding events to reevaluate their situation to see if an event can be delayed or work can be done remotely.

“We recognize it’s useful for people to test people before holding events, but right now that’s very difficult,” she said. “Right now, we know the Jazz is using their own testing resources, so if you have access to your own testing resources, we encourage that, but if you have symptoms, please don’t go to that event.”

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