The streets of Park City already seem busier than they did several weeks ago, and they’re about to become even more jammed as visitors flock to town for the return of the Sundance Film Festival.
The event, which will be the first in-person festival since 2020, will likely bring celebrities and crowds, but the coronavirus could also make an appearance.
Summit County health officials anticipate a rise in respiratory illnesses such as COVID, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) with more people traveling to the community, but most people don’t need to worry — especially if they take the right precautions.
“I think we’ll just continue to see the same ebb and flow that we’ve seen so far this year. Just like with the ski season and visitors coming in from out of town, I think we’re just going to see the ups and downs of this flu and cold season as well as COVID, which is starting to find its seasonality,” Nancy Porter, an epidemiologist working for the Summit County Health Department, said. “We’ll continue to monitor that, but I don’t think we’ll see anything crazy coming from one event.”
Sundance organizers in August outlined the COVID safety precautions that would be in place as they prioritized creating a space that allows the community to watch films together in a hybrid set-up. This included requiring all staff and volunteers working the festival to wear masks and take weekly COVID tests. Festival-goers are also asked to wear masks in all Sundance spaces and test negative before attending the event. COVID-19 vaccinations are not required to attend, but they are recommended. The Sundance Institute will also work with a COVID-19 safety team to ensure all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines are met.
Resources such as testing, vaccines and other treatments have made it possible for community spread to remain low in Summit County. The public also plays a role.
“Really what we’re seeing is behaviors continuing to be really important,” Deputy Health Director Shelley Worley said. “Making sure if people are sick, we encourage them not to travel and not to be out in public, masks are still available and encouraged for use, and just being willing to keep up with those precautions that have been recommended all along. Not only for COVID, but for flu and RSV and everything else that’s going around this winter.”
The three respiratory illnesses spiked county-wide before the holidays, but recent data compiled by Porter showed a 50% decrease in all cases. There have been 63 confirmed COVID cases over the past two weeks compared to more than 100 cases during the 14 days before that.
The Health Department’s new respiratory illness dashboard, which tracks flu and RSV cases dating back to 2019, also indicates a downward trend since before Christmas. There were 97 flu cases and 28 RSV cases reported the week of Dec. 22. This week, 37 flu cases and 14 RSV cases were confirmed.
Part of the decrease could be because of delays in testing, Porter said, but it’s also possible that “we’re starting to see things slow down.” COVID testing positivity has consistently remained below 15%. Health officials have also been monitoring wastewater data, which showed increases that correlate to the holiday trends.
With an influx of people expected to travel to Park City because of Sundance, COVID, flu and RSV cases will likely rise in the weeks following. County health officials, however, don’t anticipate any significant increase or surge. Instead, case counts are expected to fluctuate throughout the rest of the winter season — though they shouldn’t reach the same high levels of COVID in 2020 or 2021.
Worley encouraged the community to take advantage of testing, home kits, vaccines, boosters and personal protective equipment offered through the Health Department to help reduce the spread of respiratory viruses. Flu numbers were notably low in 2020 because of the precautions that were in place because of COVID, such as masking and social distancing.
“We’re going to ebb and flow through the winter season. We’re going to fluctuate as people arrive. It’s something that the Health Department is aware of,” she said. “We’re not just focused on COVID, but everything that we have regarding the cold and flu season.”
The Health Department plans to continue promoting community messaging, including washing your hands, not going out in public when you feel sick and tips for staying off the “snotty list,” to help safeguard from disease.
Many respiratory illnesses are spread similarly through coughing, sneezing or being in close contact with someone who is infected. The symptoms are similar, too, with people experiencing fever, fatigue, coughing, shortness of breath, a runny or stuffy nose and body aches.
Worley recognized that COVID is still a concern and should be taken seriously, but said the risk is greater for some groups, such as young children, the elderly and people who are immunocompromised. She said each individual should assess their own risk and take the necessary precautions to protect themselves and those they love.
“COVID is still a concern. It’s something that we’re learning to adjust and live with. And we’re going to continue to see it as well as different variants. It’s going to ebb and flow in our community and it’s something we’re going to have to learn how to weather,” the deputy health director said.
Porter also expects that some new COVID variants reported on the East Coast could make their way west, and into Summit County. She said there’s usually a two-week delay in a variant’s appearance. The bivalent booster that came out in September and antivirals are effective against the latest COVID strains, but monoclonal antibodies are less so, Porter said.
The Health Department offers vaccinations for several viruses. Flu shots and the bivalent COVID booster are available from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday in Coalville, from 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. every Monday through Thursday in Park City, and from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Wednesday in Kamas, until supplies run out.
Testing is also available from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Round Valley/Quinn’s Junction office located at 650 Round Valley Drive in Park City. Call 435-333-1500 for more information.
Sundance is scheduled from Jan. 19-29 in Park City and Salt Lake City with in-person and online screenings — which open nationwide on Jan. 24 — as well as panel discussions and other special events.