SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah won't require masks in K-12 schools for the last week of the school year, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday.
Individual school districts will have the option to continue mask mandates in their schools to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but the state will lift its blanket mask requirement for all districts in the state, the governor said. Starting on the Monday of whenever districts have their last weeks of school, masks won't be required, he said.
The motivation for lifting the mandate in the last week of school is to give students a chance to see their teachers and friends at schools that last week, the governor said.
"So give kids an opportunity to see their teachers, to see their friends, to spend that last week together without masks, if they so choose," Cox said during the state's weekly COVID-19 news conference Thursday.
The governor said there had been a request from several districts for the state to lift the school mask mandate, but Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson later clarified that there was no single district that pushed the decision over the finish line.
Families and kids can still make the decision to continue wearing masks, and Cox pleaded with people to respect the choices of individual parents and students.
"We believe that this is the right thing to do, we believe that this is the prudent thing to do, but I will say that masks are still encouraged, and families and children will be able to make those decisions," he said. "I would ask that parents and students and teachers, that everyone be respectful of the choices that are made by those families for that last week."
Utah Department of Health deputy director Dr. Michelle Hofmann, who is a pediatrician, said she still recommends that kids wear masks in schools. Until more people are vaccinated, masks are still a very effective tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19, she said.
However, she encouraged parents to have discussions with their children about masks and determine their comfort levels.
"We have to be able to have these conversations at an individual level, and assess risks as parents of children and do the right thing," Hofmann said during the news conference. "Let's let our children witness that we can all do this together. Let's not use them as instruments either."
For the majority of the pandemic, Utah's COVID-19 response has been handled by a unified command team featuring state employees from various agencies, including the Utah Department of Health and Utah Department of Public Safety.
Starting Monday, the state will transition back to a COVID-19 response team under the sole direction of health department Executive Director Rich Saunders, according to Henderson. This will allow state employees outside the health department who were devoting time to the unified command group to focus on their regular jobs, she said.
The state's weekly COVID-19 news conferences, which typically take place on Thursdays, will continue to be held weekly until the end of May, Henderson said. After that point, the pace of the briefings will likely slow down. The health department's coronavirus data dashboard, found at coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts, will continue to be updated, and the state's COVID-19-related social media accounts also will remain active after the end of May, she added.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox provided a COVID-19 pandemic update at a news conference Thursday morning. Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Utah Department of Health Deputy Director Dr. Michelle Hofmann also spoke at the event. Watch the replay below.
Utah hoping to see bump in vaccinations
Just over a third of Utah's total population is now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and this week's decision from federal regulators to authorize the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for the 12-15 age group should bump that percentage in the coming weeks.
But state officials aren't happy with the current vaccination pace.
"We need to do better, we need to do a lot better," Henderson said Thursday.
Utah is continuing to shift its vaccination strategy toward one where the state comes to you, rather than you coming to the state to be vaccinated. Individual organizations are now able to schedule their own vaccination clinics in businesses, churches, workplaces and other settings, and most vaccination clinics in the state now allow walk-ins instead of requiring appointments.
The latest effort to improve vaccine equity and get more shots in arms is ride-sharing companies offering free rides to vaccination appointments. Uber and Lyft will soon both offer free rides to appointments through their app, Henderson said. The feature is expected to roll out within the next few weeks and will be available until July 4.
Since the Pfizer vaccine is now available for adolescents in the 12-15 age group, officials are encouraging parents to make decisions with their children and with their primary care providers about getting vaccinated, Hofmann said.
"They're having those crucial conversations and we're getting more Utahns vaccinated," she said.
Intermountain Healthcare announced on Thursday evening that it's now offering COVID-19 vaccination appointments for individuals 12 and older throughout Utah starting Saturday.
Appointments can be made at Intermountain Logan Regional Hospital, Intermountain McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, Intermountain Riverton Hospital, Intermountain Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, and Intermountain St. George Regional Hospital. Parents or guardians can schedule an appointment for the child at Intermountain.com/covidvaccine. Walk-ins are welcome.
More information about where to find a vaccination site for children ages 12-15 is available at coronavirus.utah.gov. At least 117 primary care providers in Utah are now offering vaccinations directly from their offices, according to Hofmann.
New COVID-19 cases
There are an estimated 7,630 active cases of COVID-19 in Utah, according to the health department. The rolling seven-day average number of positive cases per day is now at 328, according to the health department. The positive test rate per day for that time period calculated with the "people over people" method is now 6.7%. The positive test rate per day for that time period calculated with the "test over test" method is now 3.6%.
There are 152 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Utah, including 53 in intensive care, state data shows. About 73% of intensive care unit beds in Utah hospitals are now occupied, including 74% of ICU beds in the state's 16 referral hospitals. About 56% of non-ICU hospital beds are now occupied in Utah, according to the health department.
A total of 2,355,333 vaccine doses have been administered in the state, up from 2,340,755 Wednesday. There are now 1,370,701 Utahns who have received at least a first dose of the vaccine, and 1,084,381 are fully vaccinated, according to the health department. A total of 2,851,143 vaccine doses have been shipped to the state so far.
State data now shows that 42.8% of Utah's total population has received at least a first dose of the vaccine, and 33.8% are fully vaccinated. Among Utahns age 16 and older, 57.6% have received at least one dose and 45.6% are fully vaccinated, according to the health department.
The new numbers indicate a 0.1% increase in positive cases since Wednesday. Of the 2,623,583 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 15.3% have tested positive for the disease. The number of total tests conducted in Utah since the pandemic began is now 4,781,911, up 14,677 since Wednesday.
The six deaths reported Thursday were:
- Two Iron County men who were between the ages of 65 and 84 and were hospitalized when they died
- A Salt Lake County woman who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was hospitalized when he died
- A Tooele County woman who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Utah County man who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
Three of the deaths occurred before April 13 but were still being investigated by state medical examiners, the health department said.
Thursday's totals give Utah 401,669 total confirmed cases, with 16,467 total hospitalizations and 2,255 total deaths from the disease. An estimated 391,784 Utah COVID-19 cases are now considered recovered, according to the health department.
More information about Utah's health guidance levels is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-health-guidance-levels.
Information is from the Utah Department of Health and coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts. For more information on how the Utah Department of Health compiles and reports COVID-19 data, visit coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts and scroll down to the "Data Notes" section at the bottom of the page.