Why more COVID-19 in Salt Lake County wastewater isn’t worrying officials

COVID-19 risk levels in the areas served by both the South Valley and Jordan Basin water reclamation facilities have moved up enough to make the state’s watch list, but a Salt Lake County Health Department official said that doesn’t mean another virus surge is coming .

“I don’t think we have a reason to think that transmission is going to explode like it did in January,” Kylie Sage, the county health department’s data and surveillance manager said, citing still low rates of emergency room visits for the virus and the availability of more vaccinations and treatments.

“People have more options for protection and so those three indicators together don’t necessarily spark immediate concern,” Sage said, even though the county, like the state, is now relying on a measure of the presence of COVID-19 in feces samples collected at sewage treatment plants to monitor outbreaks rather than case counts.

“Wastewater tells us what we might be able to expect, but it’s just one tool in the surveillance toolbox. And because of that, we shouldn’t necessarily react to every fluctuation in the data. We know that COVID is still spreading in our communities,” Sage said, so some ups and downs are likely.

COVID-19 cases are climbing in other parts of the country as so-called “stealth omicron” sweeps through the United States. According to theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention, the even more highly transmissible subvariant of omicron, which drove Utah’s case counts to record highs in January, now dominates this region.

But Salt Lake County’s wastewater monitoring levels are comparable to the same point last year, Sage said. Since then, children have become eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations and booster doses have become available, including a second booster dose for those 50 and older or who are immunocompromised.

Utah has just moved to a new “steady state” pandemic response announced earlier this year by Gov. Spencer Cox. The governor said by March 31, the state would end most testing and treatment and begin dealing with COVID-19 more like the flu or other endemic disease that, while still deadly, isn’t a constant threat.

Under the new response, the Utah Department of Health has replaced daily reports on COVID-19 with a single update posted online Thursdays at coronavirus.utah.gov that includes data from the state’s twice-weekly analysis of wastewater samples gathered from 32 sites around the state.

While Thursday’s update showed increases in the virus at just six sites, a map on another state website, wastewatervirus.utah.gov, on Friday showed nine sites have higher levels of COVID-19 but still puts the South Valley facility in the unchanged category.

Sage said both South Valley and Jordan Basin don’t just have more COVID-19 being detected, but she said it’s enough that the state has now deemed them sites to watch. The state defines the level as “of potential concern, but not high enough to be considered elevated.”

Nathan LaCross, the state health department wastewater surveillance manager, said after the state’s weekly update came out Thursday, new data has moved sites in Moab and Park City to the highest risk level, elevated, and four sites — the two in Salt Lake County, one in Davis County and another in Hyrum—to the watch list.

He said even though the Moab and Park City systems have been determined to have elevated levels of COVID-19, no one there should be “incredibly alarmed, but they should be aware that there are strong indications we’re seeing more transmission in some areas and take appropriate measures,” such as social distancing.

There’s no such red flag in Salt Lake County yet, but Sage offered similar suggestions.

“My advice would be to stay diligent in the really simple ways that you can protect yourself — washing your hands, staying home if you’re sick, getting vaccinated if you’re not, or boosted if you’re eligible,” she said . “Really, just abiding by those hygiene practices we’ve all become so familiar with in the past two years.”

Most people don’t need to wear masks or social distance, Sage said, unless they are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19 or regularly interact with someone who is. The COVID-19 vaccine still offers the best protection against hospitalization or death, said.

And COVID-19 isn’t the only virus on the upswing in Salt Lake County — so is the flu, Sage said.

“It’s still low but it is unusual that at this point in the year, flu activity is going up. Normally spring is the end of our flu season,” she said. Flu had all but disappeared during the first winter of the pandemic, but now many people are more relaxed about the hygiene habits they adopted against COVID-19.

“I think that’s the most likely cause” of the increase in the flu, she said, urging those who have not done so to get a flu shot. “More or less, everybody’s gone back to their quote-unquote normal lives and as we see more people and do more things, that just gives us more potential to spread different viruses.”

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