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Herbert announces mask mandate for K-12 schools as Utah sees 601 new COVID-19 cases, 4 deaths

Gov. Gary Herbert wears his mask as he enters a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. (Photo: Steve Griffin, KSL)

(Steve Griffin, KSL)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Thursday announced he will require students, teachers, staff, faculty and visitors at all K-12 schools in the state to wear masks for the fall semester as COVID-19 cases have surged in recent weeks.

Herbert stopped short Thursday of requiring masks for all citizens statewide but said requiring masks at schools, even in rural areas, will help provide a safe environment for the state's education system.

Masks will be required for everyone entering school buildings in the state's 41 public school districts and associated charter schools, as well as on buses, Herbert said. The mandate will be in effect for the entire state, including rural areas that have already shifted to the green, new normal precaution level for COVID-19.

“We certainly want to make sure we do whatever’s necessary to make sure (students) have a safe environment to go back to school and to learn," Herbert said.

Earlier this month, 500,000 masks were delivered to the state of Utah and will be provided to students and teachers at schools. Additionally, state officials will be working with schools to make sure there are adequate precautions put in place, such as hand-washing resources, Herbert said Wednesday.

Also Thursday, Utah’s number of COVID-19 cases increased by 601 from Wednesday, with four new reported deaths, according to the Utah Department of Health. The new numbers indicate a 2.2% increase in positive cases since Wednesday. The health department now estimates there are 11,491 active cases of COVID-19 in Utah.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn provided a COVID-19 pandemic update on Thursday afternoon. Watch the replay of the event below.

Governor won't rule out statewide mask mandate

Herbert's school mask mandate announcement comes a day after Utah saw its highest single-day total of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, with 722 cases and seven deaths.

The governor has repeatedly declined to mandate masks in public for all Utahns, preferring to let local health departments decide what is best for their area. Thursday, he again said he will wait to see if the people of Utah take responsibility for their part in curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the form of wearing masks.

“If we all do our part we can in fact conquer this pandemic," Herbert said. "Let’s do the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. ... I believe in the people of Utah.”

Masks are already required in public in Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties, as well as the community of Springdale, just south of Zion National Park in Washington County.

Herbert met with legislators and other stakeholders this week before announcing his decision on the mask mandate for schools. Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and House Speaker Brad Wilson both said Wednesday they oppose a statewide mandate. The Utah Hospital Association, however, came out in favor of such a measure.

Despite refusing to enact a statewide mask mandate, Herbert on Thursday didn't rule out the possibility that Utah may yet see one sometime down the line. He said the state is at a "crossroads," and if moves aren't made to address the situation now, a mask mandate could still be in Utah's future.

The governor also acknowledged that the state may have made some mistakes in its messaging, allowing people to become more "cavalier" and less cautious about the coronavirus. The state's color-coded messaging under the Utah Leads Together plan was framed in terms of risk: red corresponds to high risk, orange to moderate risk, yellow to low risk and green to normal or no risk.

Herbert said Thursday that in hindsight, state leaders should have put the colors in terms of restrictions. The red level should have corresponded to high restrictions, orange to moderate restrictions, and so on. By assigning a level of risk to each color, the plan signifies to Utahns that there is less of a need for COVID-19 precautions if your area is in yellow.

In reality, people still need to exercise caution and be mindful of the risks of COVID-19 in all the color-coded levels, Herbert said. In some cases, taking precautions such as covering your face may be even more important in the less-restrictive levels, because people are interacting with others much more if an area is in the yellow zone compared to an area in the orange zone.

“We’ve probably dropped our guard a bit, become a little complacent," Herbert said.

Now, he has once again called on Utahns to accept responsibility and take those precautions as the pandemic continues.

7-day average must get below 500, Herbert says

The new case average for the past seven days is 585 cases per day, and the positive test rate for that time period is 9.9%, according to the health department.

The seven-day average is now becoming a more important metric than the day-to-day changes, because health officials are now looking at longer trends instead of the fluctuation from day to day, according to health department state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn.

Getting that average below 500 cases per day is imperative if the state wants to avoid overwhelming its healthcare system, Herbert added. Healthcare officials have said that the limit that the healthcare system can handle in Utah is an average of about 800 cases per day, but below 500 is the current goal, the governor said.

Herbert is hoping that by renewing his call for Utahns to take precautions and wear masks, the state will hit that goal by August 1.

“This plan only works if we as individuals take on the responsibility to do our part,” he said. "Let’s all pull together by wearing a mask.”

The next two to three weeks will be crucial for Utah, Herbert said. Stakeholders, including data scientists, healthcare officials and state leaders, will be meeting in the coming days to reassess the data the state has available about the pandemic, the governor added. They will be making sure everyone is on the same page moving forward as officials continue to look at the data and form policies based on the numbers.

However, there are delays in data that have sometimes affected the state's ability to enact policies, Herbert said.

For example, Salt Lake County has had a mask mandate in effect for several weeks, but cases continue to rise there. Dunn said the effects of policy changes such as mask mandates can take several weeks or months to show up in the state's data.

There are some initial signs that Salt Lake County's case rate is slowing following the enactment of the mask mandate, but the next few weeks will reveal more about the effectiveness of the mandate, Dunn said. This is part of the reason Herbert wants to wait 2-3 more weeks before enacting more policies, he said.

4 more COVID-19 deaths

Two Salt Lake County residents were among the four deaths reported Thursday, according to the health department. One was a woman who was between the ages of 25 and 44. The other was a man between the ages of 45 and 64.

A Washington County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and a San Juan County man who was between the ages of 45 and 64 were the two other deaths reported. In all four deaths, the patients were hospitalized when they died, the health department reported.

Of the 388,733 tests conducted in Utah so far, 7% were positive for COVID-19. The number of tests conducted increased by 2,973 as of Thursday, the health department reported.

A total of 15,661 cases are estimated recovered because those people were diagnosed with COVID-19 three or more weeks ago and have not died.

There are currently 177 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, down from 199 on Wednesday, according to the health department. There are 74 COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit, or ICU, beds at Utah hospitals as of Thursday, down two from Wednesday, according to health data. However, the percentage of ICU beds occupied in Utah is now just under 67%, up from 64% Wednesday.

About 55% of non-ICU beds are occupied at Utah hospitals as of Thursday, up from 53% Wednesday.

Thursday’s totals give Utah 27,356 total confirmed cases, with 1,700 total hospitalizations and 205 total deaths from the disease.

The total number of cases reported by the health department includes all cases of COVID-19 since Utah’s outbreak began, including those who are infected now, those who have recovered from the disease and those who have died.

Dunn said Thursday the state has seen an increase in COVID-19 infections among people ages 15 to 44. That age group is typically at a lower risk for severe cases of COVID-19 and are less likely to be hospitalized.

The rise in cases in that age group could explain the lower recent hospitalization rate, which is down to 6.5% Thursday after hovering around 8% earlier in the pandemic, according to the health department. The fatality rate for COVID-19 is also down to about .75% in Utah after being around 1% earlier in the pandemic.

But that doesn't change the severity of Utah's current situation, Dunn added. Though they might be younger and at a lower risk, more people are getting infected with the disease. And as the infection rate goes up, the likelihood that someone at a higher risk for COVID-19 will get infected with the disease goes up, too, she said.

"All ages should continue to physically distance when possible, wear face masks, stay home when you're sick and wash your hands," Dunn said. "The more cases we have in our community, regardless of the ages of the cases, increases the risk to our vulnerable populations, and we all need to do our part to control the spread of COVID-19 in Utah."

Changes to Healthy Together app

The Healthy Together app helps Utahns address symptoms and determine whether or not they should get tested.

Since the app launched in late April, about 58,000 people have downloaded it, Dunn said Thursday. About 500,000 people have used the app to assess their symptoms of COVID-19, and 18,000 people have been referred to get a test through the app.

However, the contact tracing element of the app hasn't been used as heavily, Dunn said. It hasn't been popular among the app's users, and therefore hasn't been a useful tool for health department investigators doing contact tracing.

The state will be shutting off the GPS and Bluetooth location tracking features of the Healthy Together app, Dunn said. People will still be able to use the app to assess symptoms, get referred for testing and learn more about COVID-19.

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