Q&A: Dr. Leisha Nolen, Utah State Epidemiologist, on public health efforts in the Beehive State

Utah recently recorded some of the lowest numbers of COVID-19 deaths and steepest declines in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the country. Leisha Nolen, MD, PhD, Utah’s State Epidemiologist, attributes those results to the state’s unique set of demographics as a relatively young and healthy population. 

 

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With 65% of its population fully vaccinated, Nolen emphasized the importance of immunization against potential variants and continued adherence to public health guidance. Note: this interview was conducted prior to the safety recommendation issued last Thursday for the new FDA-approved COVID-19 boosters 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 actually are having declining rates of COVID cases. As we know, there’s been an underdetection of cases for a long time, really since January or February where we changed the testing approach [to] at-home testing. But even using the metrics we can of the people who go in and get tested at sites, who go to their clinics to get tested, we can see there was an increase in the summer and we are now in a decreasing period.”

SOR: What will be the guidance issued on COVID-19 boosters after ACIP safety approval?

LN: “We want to follow [ACIP recommendations] to make sure we’re getting [doses to] the people who are going to most benefit from these vaccines. [ACIP] is meeting today and tomorrow and we expect that recommendation to come out either tonight or tomorrow night and certainly Utah will be following what those commendations are.

I think we’re all hoping that the data show that these will be a good addition to our armory of how to combat COVID. We know those original vaccines did a good job but they are not quite the same as what we’re all being exposed to these days. So having a vaccine that has those newer variants in it is really a hopeful step. I think the data I’ve seen suggests that it’s really safe. There’s no new side effects or anything from these. The preliminary studies suggest that they would help us fight off newer infections. We’re all hopeful that those vaccines can start to come out next week. We’ll be able to get people those vaccines that are a little bit more updated for this coming 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 that they need. We really want them to get those but we also want people to go and get the flu vaccines when they come out so we can make sure people stay healthy in all regards.”

SOR: How have vaccination efforts to protect children 6 months and older been going so far and what would you say to families who are still hesitant to vaccinate their young ones?

LN: “Certainly throughout the country and Utah similarly, the uptake of the vaccine for the little, little kids has not been super strong. We know that people have sort of either just avoided this, [or] they’ve delayed it. They feel like it’s summertime[ and] their children aren’t at risk. There are other people who are like, we’ve already gotten [COVID] as a family so there’s not much of a risk to my child. I would say now’s the time to really go get them vaccinated.

We know there are little kids who do get sick. Unfortunately in Utah, we actually just had a death in a young child this week from COVID. And so we know this can happen. It’s rare, thank goodness. But I don’t think anybody wants to have that rare event by chance with their family. We really want people to go get those vaccines and get their little kids protected. Certainly as we start school back up. As winter time comes on, we expect COVID to circulate again and getting that vaccine into kids is really important.”

SOR: What would you say are Utah’s biggest needs from a public health perspective at the moment? What can policymakers and stakeholders do to improve public health in Utah? 

LN: “We’ve learned a lot through this pandemic about how to approach public health. Probably before 2020, people didn’t know what public health meant and now it’s out in the limelight. We’ve been learning a lot about how to work with people, how to work with governmental organizations, with different stakeholders, with our health care providers to really be a unified front.

I think that’s really important, is getting everybody to talk together and make sure we send the same message so there isn’t a confusion because the public listens to us. It’s hard when you hear one message from one group and a different message from another. So I really hope that we can continue to work closer and closer with all of our different partners to make sure we’re saying the same things to get our population as protected as possible so [people] can go about whatever they want to do in their daily lives.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.