PARK CITY, Utah. — A full year after Summit County shut down to stem widespread local COVID transmission, vaccines are rolling in, spring is sort of in the air, and people are antsy. Beyond antsy. They’re done. Parkites’ domestic and international vacation travel along with surging indoor activities and gatherings around town suddenly has a distinct pre-COVID feel.
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough is not pleased.
“This is definitely too soon,” he said. “It’s foolish. We need to be stressing on a much wider scale – we’re not over this.”
His department has an environmental health team of five employees tasked with investigating public complaints about businesses’ noncompliance. Bullough said a couple of moths ago, noncompliance calls were very rare. Now, multiple calls come in daily, and the team sometimes visits six businesses in a day to investigate. The team works with business owners on compliance, and can issue violations to those violating current state code.
Bullough said he’s seen the changing behavior for himself: “For the first time in a very long time I was out and about on a weekend and went to a popular store, and I must have seen 5 % of people didn’t have masks on. That’s the first time I’ve seen that in months. It’s very concerning.”
Despite the public’s weariness with masks and social distancing, Bullough said restrictions will continue through spring into summer, and he laid out the reasons why: Currently, 10 % of Summit County residents have been vaccinated. Another 20 % have had confirmed diagnosed cases of COVID and ostensibly have some level of immunity. That’s simply not enough to ease up, he said.
“The bare minimum we want to shoot for is 70% who have some immunity (from either vaccines or contracting the virus,” he said. “We’re not even halfway there.”
Summit County’s number of newly diagnosed COVID cases has dropped, but plateaued at a “disconcertingly high number,” he said. The county remains at the ‘highest transmission’ category, and is roughly double the number of new cases per day that he wants to see. That’s a problem because when the virus is prevalent in a community, diagnosed or not, it mutates more rapidly into variants – which is among Bullough’s biggest worries.
The health department is finding that cases are pretty much untraceable, Bullough said, due to the high number of informal social gatherings occurring throughout the community – in other words, people hanging out and not maintaining social distancing.
There is exactly one thing that can move the area into lesser restrictions, he said: vaccines.
“The thing that is going to normalize us the quickest is getting vaccinated,” Bullough said. “The longer we delay getting shots in arms the longer we’re gonna be wearing masks, the longer we’re gonna have surging hospital cases. If we expect things to be somewhat normal this summer our job as individuals is to get vaccinated.”
Casey Metzger, who owns Top Shelf Services and also serves as board chairman of the Park City Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, knows something about how many people want life normalized before summer. Top Shelf is a bar service with clients ranging from private party hosts to weddings to corporations hosting special events, and demand is surging.
“The phones are ringing,” he said. “We forgot what our phones sounded like.”
After countless cancellations in 2020, Metzger said, his company has more contracts signed for the coming summer than ever before, due in part to new partnerships with venues but also due to pent-up demand: “People who were supposed to get married last year – those people are gonna get married.”
Metzger said clients are making their plans in hopes of being able to gather, knowing that events may end up postponed or canceled. He worked with county health officials last year to set up protocols to get the hospitality and event industry up and running safely, developing policies around contact tracing, spacing and distancing of crowds and vendor compliance requirements.
“As an industry, we have to make the call on whether we’re comfortable or not,” he said. At Top Shelf, Metzger and his team evaluate clients’ protocols and decide if they’ll take the job. He said he’s said no “a lot” to clients whose COVID safety protocols just didn’t cut it.
Regarding the vaccines that will eventually make possible all those future barbecues, parades, rodeos, Park Silly markets, concerts, fairs and backyard bashes, Bullough said he is cheered by Gov. Spencer Cox’s distribution plans and strategy, though in daily meetings with health officials throughout the state, a recent decline in demand for vaccine appointments has been “incredibly concerning.”
Statewide, vaccination focus thus far has been on high-risk populations, but appointments are now available to all Utahns 65 and older. Many more doses of vaccine are expected in coming weeks; the next logical age threshold for blanket availability would be those 50 and older.
Utah is currently fourth in the nation in number of vaccines distributed; Summit County is second among Utah counties.
Daily reviews of global COVID trend data have shown increasing reinfection cases among vaccinated people, Bullough said, which points to variants spreading. He’s hopeful that there might be a seasonal component to COVID spread, and that coming warm weather will help reduce infection. But he emphasized that nothing but vaccinations will end pandemic restrictions.
In daily meetings with health officials from all Utah counties and weekly meetings with the Governor’s office and universities, among others, health officials analyze how many vaccines are arriving and how to divvy them up. In the near future, Bullough said, as more of the county is vaccinated, the health department will identify “pockets of low uptake” and deploy mobile units to reach people. That’s already happening on a micro scale, with homebound people getting visits from the health department.
That’s in addition to on-site work at temporary vaccine sites around the county, which have so far been staffed by more than 400 volunteers along with county employees.
“I think people would probably be stunned to realize what an enormous effort this is and how many people are working on it,” Bullough said. “We’re doing good work.”