SALT LAKE CITY — While some continue to applaud rising COVID-19 infections for the sake of herd immunity, a University of Utah physician said herd immunity through widespread infection is still not the way to fight the disease.
Herd immunity means enough people become immune to a disease to make spread unlikely. The percentage of a community that needs to become immune differs by disease. Polio is an example of a disease that was eradicated in the U.S. due to herd immunity reached through immunization.
“We do not think at the current state of infection, even in New York City where the virus hit extremely hard, that we have anywhere near close to the number of people that need to be immune in order to stop the spread of infection,” said Dr. Hannah Imlay, University of Utah Health infectious disease physician.
In Utah, where less than 5% of the population has had COVID-19 — even if recovering from the infection provides “robust and long-lasting” immunity — it’s not enough people to prevent the spread. Doctors now believe 80% or more of the population needs to be immune to COVID-19 to reach herd immunity, Imlay noted during a recent news conference.
The cost of reaching that percentage of Utah’s hospitalization would cause a “huge” number of deaths and hospitalizations, according to Imlay.
On Saturday, Utah health officials again reported over 1,000 new COVID-19 cases.
Of 9,862 people tested since Friday, 1,017 were positive for the novel coronavirus, a rate of 10.3%, according to the Utah Department of Health.
On Friday, the state reported its highest daily increase of COVID-19 cases, with just over 1,400 confirmed.
The rolling seven-day average for new cases is 951 per day, and the average positive test rate is 13.8%. Currently, 187 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, three more than on Friday. About 3,700 have needed hospitalization for the disease in the state since the outbreak started.
Imlay urged residents to continue taking measures to keep themselves and their families safe as Utah’s cases continue rising and as holidays approach.
“The three things that are forefront in my mind in thinking about is this activity safe in the time of COVID or not: Are there many people that are involved? Am I close to them at a close distance and for a long period of time? And what’s the environment around me like — is this a closed, small area with poor ventilation, or is this a wide, open area?” Imlay explained.
She said residents should try planning to celebrate holidays within their nuclear families, and consider how traveling or welcoming visitors from out-of-state could pose a risk to themselves and others.
Meanwhile, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has updated its modeling for Utah to project that without universal masking, the state will see another holiday peak of the disease with nearly 1,500 cases a day by Dec. 31.
Imlay said she believes those projections — which have changed throughout the pandemic as analysts have learned more about the disease, and as restrictions are lifted and imposed — could be accurate.
“That’s backed by other studies as well. There’s modeling studies that if 80% of the population are wearing masks, then the (transmission rate) will drop to less than one and this will sort of die out,” Imlay said.
“I do believe that spreading masking is the tool we have now that’s cheap. It’s challenging because it doesn’t just rely on something that I can do for myself,” she said, but it requires everyone to think about how they can help others.
Now 69,547 of 805,079 people tested have had confirmed infections in Utah since the pandemic began, an overall positive rate of 8.6%.
No new deaths were reported Saturday, leaving the state’s toll due to the disease at 448 people.
About 53,800 of Utah’s cases are considered recovered after surviving the three-week point since their diagnoses, meaning about 15,300 cases remain active.