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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert announced an executive order Wednesday that will mandate the use of masks in all state buildings and said he and other state officials will meet Thursday to review Salt Lake County's request to require mask-wearing.
“I’m a local-control person. I believe that those closest to the people are in that local government arena and know what’s best for their community-at-large,” he said. “I would expect if that data shows or proves out, the request we have from their county mayor and council now … we will grant their request for them to make it a mandatory requirement to wear a face mask in Salt Lake County.”
Herbert spoke during a virtual press conference hours after Utah health officials reported 484 new COVID-19 cases in the state Wednesday with no new reported deaths and 30 new hospitalizations. The updated figures show that Utah’s coronavirus cases are continuing to rise at the highest rates the state has seen since the outbreak began in March.
The state order Herbert announced means masks will be mandatory in places that Utah has "control over" like higher education facilities or state-run liquor stores. It wasn’t immediately clear when that mandate will begin but employees, customers and vistors will all be required to wear masks once it does happen.
The governor cited a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences which indicated that airborne transmission was the leading cause for COVID-19 spread. He also mentioned how wearing masks minimizes spread.
“A recent published compilation of 172 studies on the subject found that mask-wearing significantly reduces the risk of viral spread,” he added. “Again, I think that’s intuitive for most of us but the science backs up what we’d probably suppose would happen with people having these airborne transmission capabilities.”
On Friday, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, sent a memo to state officials that recommended that either government officials or businesses begin requiring face coverings in an effort to slow down Utah’s growing rate of new COVID-19 cases that began to spike on May 28. Both Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall publicly called on Herbert to mandate face coverings Tuesday.
Salt Lake County is where about half of all Utah’s COVID-19 cases are located. Not only has it been the center of Utah’s COVID-19 cases, but its 9,460 total cases are also closing in on the Top 50 highest among all U.S. counties, according to Johns Hopkins University statistics.
But it wasn’t just masks, Wednesday: Herbert also said he will not issue any more relaxations of the state's color dial indicating coronavirus risk levels over the next two weeks. That means the areas of the state that are in "yellow" will remain there heading into July. The 10 rural counties that have made it to “green” won’t change back.
Continued growth of cases
Utah health officials reported 484 new COVID-19 cases in the state Wednesday with no new reported deaths. Officials added there were 30 new coronavirus-related hospitalizations since Tuesday and that 167 Utahns are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19.
There are now 18,784 total confirmed cases, with 1,256 total hospitalizations and 163 total deaths from the disease since March 6. Previously, there were 18,300 cases in the state. Of that total, 10,263 cases have been reported since May 24; in all, 8,287 cases are active cases while another 10,334 Utahns are believed to have recovered from the disease.
The new case numbers indicate a 2.6% increase in total positive cases since Tuesday. Of the 304,738 tests conducted in Utah so far, about 6.2% were positive for COVID-19. Wednesday was also the 12th straight day that Utah's 7-day positive case average has increased. It jumped from 478.4 per day Tuesday to 487 per day. The state health department has reported at least 200 new cases every day since May 28.
Even with 167 current hospitalizations due to COVID-19, the state reports that about 66% of intensive care unit beds are occupied and 52% of all non-ICU beds are occupied. While those numbers haven't exceeded capacity, Herbert added that beds aren't the only concern.
“It’s not just a matter of the bed space they’re occupying, it’s also the personnel that are needed to be there to treat them when they’re in the hospital,” he said. “When you’re in an ICU unit, you need more, better-qualified personnel and we have a limitation more on personnel than we have on bed space.”
The push for masks
Leaders at Utah’s top hospitals gathered online Tuesday to launch a new campaign called "#MaskUpUtah" that urges Utahns to wear masks. The campaign will be visible on billboards, social media and other forms of media throughout the summer.
“This is a health care issue; this should not be a political issue. Masking is about basic health and preventing the spread of disease to family, friends and even people you don’t know,” Dr. Michael Baumann, chief medical officer for MountainStar Healthcare, said during the press conference.
Herbert said he’s a “big fan of the mask” and also urged Utahns to wear a mask at all public indoor settings and gatherings, as well as wear a mask outdoors when social distancing isn’t possible. But he stopped short of making that a statewide requirement.
“I believe in a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down. I think those people closest to the people on the ground probably know their best interest,” he said. “That’s the process and we’ll go through that process. We’ll see what happens down the road.”
Should Salt Lake County’s mandate be accepted, masks or face coverings would be required in all retail and commercial establishments, as well as at community gatherings and at restaurants while patrons are waiting to be seated and served.
Requiring masks is a low-impact way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 without having to revert to stricter measures. I still believe the state needs to consider this everywhere, but today I specifically asked that we be allowed to require them in #SLC alongside the county. #utpolpic.twitter.com/r7CvjJoW96— SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall (@slcmayor) June 24, 2020
Mendenhall released a public letter in support of Salt Lake County’s bid to mandate masks as Herbert and Dunn provided updates to Utah’s COVID-19 response Wednesday afternoon.
“We also urge you to consider a similar measure for other counties that are experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases,” she added in the letter. “We still have time to re-flatten the curve.”
15 Washington County inmates test positive for COVID-19
Fifteen inmates at Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past few days, authorities said Wednesday. The cases were discovered after four inmates entering the facility’s “new intake” block began exhibiting coronavirus symptoms, Washington County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jake Schultz said Wednesday.
"It started from the intake block. We don't know from who, we don't know if one of those three started it or if they just contracted it from one of the other 12 that were in there," he said. "We can't pinpoint exactly who brought it in, only where it was brought to."
Officials then tested the entire housing unit the four individuals were in, as well as three people who were transferred to another housing unit shortly after being in contact with the infected inmates. In all, 12 of 24 people tested Monday came back with positive results. Two of the additional 12 cases had already been moved to two different housing units, according to Schultz.
He said jail staff was conducting about 100 more tests Wednesday to include the two housing units that may have been impacted. All 15 inmates who tested positive were moved to medical isolation and four housing units have been quarantined, Schultz added. They will remain quarantined for at least the next two weeks.
In all, the jail has 11 housing units. It had one positive COVID-19 case prior to this weekend. Fourteen staff members were tested as a part of this outbreak and none tested positive.
Contributing: Eric Morgan, KSL