Low case and transmission rates led the Utah Department of Health to move Summit County into the low-risk category as the state starts to transition to a less intensive phase of the pandemic response, and local officials feel hopeful about where things stand moving into the spring and summer.
There were an average of four reported coronavirus cases each day in March throughout Summit County. And with no more than eight cases reported on any given day, the numbers are significantly lower than January where the highest single-day total was 234 cases. The reduction in positive cases even led the state’s health department to deem the community’s level of spread as low as Utah moves to its “steady state” response by March 31.
With where things stand locally, and across much of the state, Utah will transition away from an emergency-level approach to the pandemic led by health departments to one that’s more individualized and led by health care systems at the end of the month as the Utah Department of Health closes its testing sites.
Summit County Health Director Phil Bondurant said the trends are encouraging.
“I say ‘fairly optimistic’ because we’ve been in this position before where we’ve been really optimistic and something came in and helped us remember that if there’s anything we know about COVID, it’s that we don’t know a lot and it’s constantly changing,” he said. “However, a lot of the different tools that are necessary to manage COVID … I should say that I am optimistic about the future of COVID — especially in Summit County.”
Bondurant said the shift comes as more weapons are widely available to communities in the fight against COVID including vaccines, boosters, monoclonal antibodies and oral antivirals — specifically at various health care systems, hospitals and urgent cares.
The Summit County Health Department, which utilizes a third-party contractor to provide coronavirus testing, has remained unaffected by the closure of state sites but debated whether to continue offering the service with demand declining.
However, local health officials felt it was important to continue offering testing in some capacity so they plan on extending their contact through April and until at least the end of the school year. Bondurant said it seemed like a natural transition point as the future of COVID will rely more on independent care.
Although officials are still working through the details, the county plans to offer self-serve kiosks as a form of testing in addition to testing provided by private clinics.
Looking back at the past two years of pandemic response, Bondurant said he feels proud of what Summit County has accomplished. He’s also grateful to Health Department staff who did the best with the limited knowledge they had at the start of the crisis and worked hard for the health and well-being of the community.
“There’s nobody in one way or another that was unaffected by COVID,” Bondurant said. “We should all be celebrating where we’re at in this response, understanding that the last two years have been challenging but we’ve learned a lot and we continue to improve and be better.”
He said the Health Department “built a small army to manage COVID” using state funds to hire contract and temporary staff, but will begin reducing its workforce of those employees as they are no longer needed.
Moving forward, the Health Department also hopes to improve health equity by addressing underserved areas that became highlighted during the COVID response as it transitions back to a traditional public health role.
Senior citizens were identified as a particular population that’s missing access to community resources, according to Bondurant. He said the pandemic helped open the Health Department’s eyes to certain issues like seniors struggling to make vaccine appointments — which predominantly moved online during COVID — because they don’t have internet access, or problems finding reliable transportation once they were able to get something scheduled.
“We’re just taking a step back and letting staff breathe. This is not something that we can just flip the switch overnight and go back to the way things were in February 2020,” Bondurant said. “Public health, in general, is going to have a new face. It’s going to have a new approach and it has to be evaluated to make sure what we do post-COVID is the best for the community — so staff is engaged in that.”
Health officials also continue to monitor positive cases in the community and the emergence of new variants like the BA.2 variant found in some states. Bondurant said the community will see new variants arrive for the foreseeable future so it’s important to continue following Center for Disease Control guidance and best health practices like handwashing.
He added that it’s important for each individual to take the right precautions for themselves and others, and not to judge if someone chooses to wear a mask — though it isn’t necessary for everyone.
The Summit County Health Department is planning to meet with Summit County Council to provide the community with an update on March 30.
“We look forward to better and brighter, and COVID-free days, hopefully,” Bondurant said.