Utah recently registered some of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 deaths and the most marked decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the country. Leisha Nolen, MD, PhD, a state epidemiologist from Utah, attributes these findings to the state’s unique set of demographics as a relatively young and healthy population.
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With 65% of his population fully vaccinated, Nolen stressed the importance of immunization against potential variants and continued adherence to public health guidelines. Note: This interview was conducted before safety recommendation issued last Thursday for new COVID-19 boosters approved by the CDC by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).
State of reform: What is the current situation regarding COVID-19 in Utah?
Leisha Nolen: “Currently in Utah, we are actually seeing a decline in COVID case rates. As we know, there has been under-detection of cases for a long time, actually since January or February when we changed the approach to testing [to] home test. But even using the metrics we can of the people who come in and get tested at the sites, who go to their clinics to get tested, we can see that there was an increase in the summer and we are now in a decreasing period. “
SOR: What will be guidelines issued on COVID-19 boosters after ACIP safety approval?
LN: “We want to follow [ACIP recommendations] to make sure we are receiving [doses to] the people who will benefit most from these vaccines. [ACIP] it meets today and tomorrow and we expect the recommendation to come out tonight or tomorrow night and surely Utah will follow what those praises are.
I think we all hope the data shows these will be a good addition to our arsenal of how to fight COVID. We know those original vaccines did a good job, but they’re not quite the same ones we’re all exposed to these days. So having a vaccine that contains those new variants is indeed a promising step. I think the data I’ve seen suggests it’s really safe. There are no new side effects or anything else from these. Preliminary studies suggest they would help us fight new infections. We are all confident that those vaccines can start rolling out next week. We will be able to provide people with those vaccines that are a little more up to date for the next year.
We really want people to go out and not just get their COVID vaccine, whether it’s an updated booster or even their primary vaccines they need. We really want them to take them, but we also want people to get their flu shots when they get out so we can make sure people stay healthy in all respects. “
SOR: How have vaccination efforts to protect children 6 months and older have gone so far, and what would you say to families who are still reluctant to vaccinate their little ones?
LN: “Certainly across the country and in Utah alike, vaccine adoption for young children hasn’t been super strong. We know that people have somehow avoided this, [or] they delayed it. Feels like it’s summer[ and] their children are not at risk. There are other people who are like, we already got it [COVID] as a family, so there is not much risk for my son. I’d say it’s time to really go get them vaccinated.
We know that there are small children who get sick. Unfortunately in Utah, we just had a death in a child this week from COVID. And so we know this can happen. It’s rare, thank goodness. But I think no one wants to have that rare event by chance with their family. We really want people to go get those vaccines and protect their babies. Certainly when we start school again. With the arrival of winter, we expect COVID to circulate again and getting that vaccine in children is really important. “
SOR: What would you say are Utah’s greatest public health needs right now? What can policymakers and stakeholders do to improve public health in Utah?
LN: “We have learned a lot through this pandemic about how to address public health. Probably before 2020, people didn’t know what public health meant and now it’s in the spotlight. We have learned a lot about how to work with people, how to work with government organizations, with different stakeholders, with our healthcare professionals to truly be a united front.
I think it’s really important, it’s getting everyone to talk together and making sure we send the same message so there’s no confusion because the audience is listening to us. It’s hard when you hear a message from one group and a different message from another. So I really hope we can continue to work more and more closely with all of our different partners to make sure we say the same things to protect our population as much as possible, so [people] they can do whatever they want to do in their daily life ”.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.