SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – Current models project COVID-19 cases in Utah will continue to rise or plateau for months — a series of waves that includes a holiday spike, and a forecast that doesn’t account for the return to school.

“It will probably continue to get worse,” said Sam LeFevre, director of Utah’s Bureau of Epidemiology.

LeFevre has been immersed in numbers and trends since the pandemic started, and he says daily case averages will likely hit about 1,200 in the next month. A plateau will follow for a month or more, and then he projects a holiday spike.

More important than daily case averages, he says, are the hospitals under duress.

“We’ve gotta defend those hospitals,” said LeFevre.

Come winter, it’s unlikely we hit the highest numbers of the pandemic — when, last winter, Utah reported daily case counts surpassing 5,000. This winter, though, hospital staff are exhausted from this medical marathon. Many of them have quit.

“They’re just burning out,” said LeFevre.

People who put off elective surgeries for 18 months are filling hospital beds as well.

“While I don’t think the case level will go up as high as last year, I do think it has the potential of getting worse,” said LeFevre.

One variable that nobody can predict is what happens inside Utah schools. On the one hand, schools can’t mandate masks — and the Delta variant is more transmissible than the Alpha strain.

On the other, he says, the virus has been around for much longer. It’s likely that some students returning to school have had the virus and would have antibodies that boost immunity. Also, he says, many family members will have been vaccinated — even if many others have not been vaccinated.

The COVID models, he says, adjust in real time and will integrate the latest information — so expect projections to evolve as the virus does, too.