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Should Utah go back to wearing masks during current COVID-19 surge? State leaders disagree

Dr. Kencee Graves, associate chief medical officer for inpatient services at University of Utah Health, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 1, 2021.

Dr. Kencee Graves, associate chief medical officer for inpatient services at University of Utah Health, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Rick Egan, pool photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox firmly dismissed any rumors that a mask mandate or other COVID-19 restrictions might be reinstated in the Beehive State, which is enduring another spike in cases as the more-contagious delta variant of the virus spreads.

"No, absolutely not," Cox said during a Thursday news conference when asked if he'd implement restrictions again. "We're pleading for a return to sanity and asking people to get their vaccines."

But one public health professional disagreed with the governor, saying she'd continue to wear a mask indoors even though she's fully vaccinated.

Models have indicated that Utah could be seeing 1,000-1,200 cases per day by the end of August if current trends don't slow down, according to the Utah Department of Health's deputy director Dr. Michelle Hofmann. The state reported 540 new cases Thursday, and the rolling seven-day average stands at 384 new cases a day.

Over 90% of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths over the past two months have been among unvaccinated people, Utah health officials said.

It's thought that the delta variant, the COVID-19 mutation that originated in India, is responsible for the current surge in Utah, according to University of Utah Associate Chief Medical Officer for Inpatient services Dr. Kencee Graves.

The delta variant is a result of the virus mutating to find more vulnerable patients, Graves said Thursday. Delta is thought to be about 60% more transmissible than previous alpha and beta variants, which in turn were 60% more transmissible than the standard virus, she said.

"We have more delta in Utah than we do in L.A.," Graves said, pointing out that Los Angeles County in California has recommended that even fully vaccinated people continue wearing masks indoors.

The World Health Organization also has recommended that fully vaccinated people continue wearing masks in crowded, indoor settings to prevent further delta variant spread.

Cox on Thursday stopped short of recommending such a measure or reinstating previous COVID-19-related restrictions, though. He said the answer to the pandemic at this point isn't to get people to wear masks again, it's to get them vaccinated.

"It won't make a difference. It just won't," Cox said. "We're not doing that. Again, we have the answer to all of this, and the answer isn't to restrictions, the answer isn't to destroy people's jobs, the answer isn't to force people to wear masks, the answer is to get vaccinated. That's the answer to all of this."

Hofmann pointed out that the World Health Organization is a global agency, and their recommendation is based on worldwide vaccination rates, which at 20% are much lower than rates in the United States. The U.S. has vaccination rates of around 70%, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn't recommended that vaccinated people wear masks indoors, she added.

Cox said he doesn't recommend that either, and he doesn't plan to keep wearing a mask indoors because he's fully vaccinated. Earlier this year, the governor guaranteed that he wouldn't be wearing a mask by the Fourth of July.

People should consult with their medical providers if they feel they should still be wearing a mask, though, Cox added. If he were at a higher risk for the disease, he might reconsider wearing a mask indoors, he said.

"You can do that. If that makes you feel more comfortable, then do it," Cox said.

Graves, however, said her personal choice will be to continue wearing a mask indoors. Her young kids aren't eligible for vaccines yet, so to lead by example, she'll continue to wear a mask around them, she said.

Vaccination rates vary across Utah, she added. Some areas of the state, such as Summit County, have much higher vaccination rates than other areas, Graves said.

She also said she recently went to the grocery store and saw an older man who looked terrified because he was surrounded by people who weren't wearing masks. It's important that people around you continue to feel safe, she said.

"I recognize that no one wants to do this. I can't wait to see people smile," Graves said. "I am worried about (the delta variant) personally, so I will be masking indoors."

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