ST. GEORGE — The most wonderful time of the year for holiday revelers may have just finished, but now is the most wonderful time of the year for viruses. 

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

And while nationally, wastewater levels and other indicators are showing respiratory diseases like COVID-19 and influenza are hitting peaks not seen in two years, data from the state health department shows Southern Utah is on par with where it was a year ago – albeit at the elevated levels normal for this time of year.

Southern Utah has seen a rise across the board in the last two weeks in COVID, influenza and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. However, according to data from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, those levels are about where they were at this time a year ago. 

The main outliers at this point, according to the data, are the largest average number of local emergency room visits for respiratory illnesses since 2022. Unlike in 2022, those ER visits are spread equally between flu and COVID and also result in a trip back home as opposed to a trip to a hospital room or death.  

In the last two weeks, there has also been a substantial rise in the number of RSV emergency room visits by children — newborn to age 4, a rise in overall influenza ER visits and a quarter of the COVID hospitalizations locally in December coming in its last week.

COVID-19, influenza and RSV activity are “increasing rapidly in Utah,”  the Utah Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement. “As the winter months advance, we expect  infections and hospitalizations to continue to increase.”

On the COVID front, the latest data released Monday by the Utah Department of Health and Human Services indicates that in the prior seven days, there had been an average of 20 emergency room visits per day among Southern Utah residents for COVID-19, 20.2 visits for influenza and 3.14 visits for RSV.

That compares with 10.4 per day for COVID, 13.4 for the flu and 5.7 for RSV at this time a year ago. There were 55 hospitalizations locally in the last month, with nearly a quarter of that in the last week of December. 

Graph using data from the Utah Department of Health and Human Services shows the seven-day average per day of emergency room visits for certain respiratory diseases in Southern Utah as of Jan. 8, 2024 for each of four years | Image by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

The data shows that for the first time in months, there was more than one COVID patient at once in the intensive care unit of St. George Regional Hospital. That’s still a far cry from two years ago at this time when nearly every patient in an overflowing ICU was being treated for COVID

There also hasn’t been a local COVID death recorded in Southern Utah since Nov. 27. That’s in contrast to last year when there were six Southern Utahns who died of COVID between Nov. 27, 2022, and Jan. 8, 2023, and the 76 people locally who died of COVID in the same time period the year before, according to health department data.

In the last few weeks, another COVID strain – JN.1– has quickly become the most prevalent form of the disease nationwide and followed previous mutations by being more transmissible yet less severe.

“This change in the relationship between infection levels and illness severity is related to greater immune protection levels provided by vaccines, prior infection or both,” a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. “Over 97% of people have natural or vaccine-induced antibodies against the virus that causes COVID-19. This immune protection can fade over time but tends to last longer for preventing severe disease than for preventing infections.”

There have been national headlines calling the current disease status as the “second largest wave since the start of the pandemic.” But the numbers are taken off national wastewater numbers that only started to be kept since early 2022 at the tail-end of the worst of the pandemic. 

In Southern Utah, COVID wastewater data goes back since the start of 2021 and is currently a small fraction below where it was a year ago at this time and a quarter of where it was two years ago.  

Nevertheless, the winter rise in COVID and other infections has been seen locally with more work callouts and just more social media chatter about “being sick.”

Here is information for those needing to know what to do if they get COVID, what to do if they have been exposed or are seeking testing.

COVID questions answered

What if I’ve been exposed to someone with COVID? My coworker said they tested positive

With more herd immunity, it is no longer the days where just being someone with COVID-19 means it’s time to stay home. 

A set of positive home COVID-19 tests, St. George, Utah, June 22, 2022 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“Unless you’ve been isolating, you probably have been exposed to COVID to the point where your immune system has developed some sort of protection for you,” said Dr. Benjamin Brooks, a molecular and cellular biologist and the clerkship director at Rocky Vista University in Ivins.

Health experts say exposure is more likely if someone has been in close quarters for more than 15 minutes with someone who tests positive and less time if they were exhibiting symptoms. 

The Utah Department of Health and Human Services says a person who thinks they have had substantial exposure shouldn’t get tested for at least five days, as it might take time for the virus to become detectable unless they exhibit symptoms. And they should take the test even if they feel fine. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends wearing a mask to avoid possibly spreading the virus for 10 days, especially around friends or loved ones who are at high risk. 

And in any case, they should heed any sign from their body for the next 10 days if they feel like they might be ill. 

Are there still places that offer free COVID tests

The federal government is once again providing free COVID-19 home test kits through the mail by going to this link, though it’s advisable to request them before being sick as it can take at least a week before they arrive. All Southern Utah Walgreens locations offer free COVID-19 PCR lab tests through the federal Increasing Community Access to Testing program.

Otherwise, there might be a charge for either a PCR lab test or the purchase of an “at-home” rapid test depending on one’s health insurance. 

There is also still a difference in accuracy between the two types of tests according to the CDC. However, the CDC said last week that improvements in the home test have pushed their accuracy up to 88%.  The CDC adds that while the home tests can provide a false negative, they will not provide a false positive. If that line appears saying COVID-19 is present, you have COVID. 

The PCR test is 95% accurate, though it can take longer to receive a result since it usually has to be taken to an off-site lab. 

What are those main symptoms?

According to the CDC, the main symptoms to watch for are fever or chills, dry cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue and muscle aches. While those can also be symptoms of influenza, one of these other symptoms in combination may give a clue that it’s COVID-19.

New loss of taste or smell
Sore throat
Congestion or runny nose
Nausea or vomiting
Conjunctivitis, also known as “pink eye.”

I’ve tested positive. I have COVID. What do I do?

Will Christiansen, medical director of Family Healthcare, said the first thing someone should do is determine if they are at risk for severe complications from COVID-19. That includes being unvaccinated, over 65, immunocompromised or having other lung, heart or blood sugar conditions. 

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

“That’s a discussion we have to have with our patients,” Christiansen said. “What’s your risk factors? Are you already several days in and already getting better? Do you have someone at home you’re worried about exposure or where you work?”

If someone is at high risk or just experiencing more than mild symptoms, a doctor or pharmacist may prescribe Paxlovid, which the National Institute of Health says reduces the chance of COVID-19 worsening by 89%.

Paxlovid must be taken within five days of the appearance of the first symptoms and, for now, the cost of the drug is being covered by the federal government. While a doctor’s prescription is needed, a pharmacy can also proscribe it on its own for an additional fee. 

Whether Paxlovid is necessary, Christiansen said the rule of thumb with COVID-19 is to listen to one’s body and take it easy with a lot of rest. 

“Hydrate well and rest and, and watch for warning signs and let us know if they start getting shorter breath or start throwing up or getting really weak,” Christiansen said. “Ibuprofen is recommended for pain relief.

According to a week-old study, there’s now another home remedy that can treat COVID-19 at home. In findings from an American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology study announced  Nov. 9 the old-fashioned neti pot could play a role in getting better while having COVID-19.  

People with COVID-19 in the study who gargled and nasal rinsed with 2-6 grams of salt dissolved in 8 ounces of sterile warm water cut their chances of complications and hospitalization in half. Doctors caution that people should use distilled or sterile water, rather than tap water to prevent the rare chance of amoeba infection.   

The Utah Department of Health and Human Services says there’s no reason to go to the emergency room unless there’s chest pain that doesn’t go away, inability to wake up easily, if one’s face or lips look bluish or there’s difficulty breathing. 

It’s also recommended to stay in a separate room from others in a household and wear a mask around them to avoid spreading the disease to others. 

Stock image | Photo by pcess609/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

There’s also another reason to take it easy. Experts have said long COVID conditions – where people experience fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog and trouble sleeping – are more likely to happen and last longer if someone exerts themself too much while having COVID-19 or in the two weeks after symptoms disappear. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, long COVID has been shown not to last more than two or three months unless someone returns to strenuous activity within those first two weeks. Getting back to that job could mean a year or more with long COVID. 

How long do I stay at home?

Health officials say it’s all about five days.

“We’re encouraging people who, when you’re sick, don’t go to school, don’t go to work, don’t be around other individuals for at least five days,” said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, who heads community health and prevention for Intermountain Health.

If there is a positive test, but no apparent symptoms, people should stay home for five days from the date of the positive test, according to information posted by the state health department.

Otherwise, a person should stay home at least five days after the onset of symptoms and not return to work, school or the public until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without medication and their other symptoms have improved over 24 hours. 

After that, Sheffield said the “kind” thing to do is to wear a mask for the next 10 days as there still is a potential to spread the virus to others. 

“If you’ve been ill, be kind and mask up for a while so you’re not spreading the virus,” Sheffield said, adding that people shouldn’t be judgmental if they see someone wearing a mask in public. “When I see a person with a mask, I think one of two things. I either think they are at risk themselves and need to protect themselves or they’re an individual who is caring about others, and they are concerned about possibly infecting someone else.”

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