SALT LAKE CITY — Children too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because they're under 12 should wear masks when they return to school, but any attempt to mandate face coverings is "futile" after state lawmakers took control of virus restrictions, Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Angela Dunn said Thursday.
Dunn, a former Utah Department of Health epidemiologist who had a high-profile role in the state's response to the pandemic that sparked protests before stepping down this spring to take the county post, said leaders of the GOP-dominated Utah Legislature don't want a return to mask mandates, despite the current surge in cases.
"I like the idea of informing the public and then letting the parents choose," Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News. Adams said legislative leaders are first gathering detailed data on the impact of COVID-19 on school-age children, and talking with public health officials and educators.
"We're paying attention," he said.
The Senate leader said it could be a week or two before a determination is made on the best way to keep children in school this fall. He said he would be "very, very opposed" to schools shifting again to remote learning, but mandating masks and other restrictions "become very difficult."
Gov. Spencer Cox isn't interested in bringing back mandatory masks in schools, either.
"Gov. Cox does not support renewing a mask mandate for schools. Instead, he continues to urge all Utahns to get vaccinated, especially before the school year starts," the governor's spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, said.
Shortly before the school year ended in June, Cox dropped the requirement that masks be worn in K-12 schools for the final week of classes. The governor said then it was "the right thing to do. We believe this is the prudent thing to do," although he added that masks were still encouraged.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, had no comment Thursday on the county's recommendation, a spokeswoman said.
State health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said the agency backs a recommendation similar to Dunn's that came from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month.
"We support CDC's guidance that students, teachers and staff who are not vaccinated make a choice to wear a mask while indoors," he said. "We also know vaccination is the single most effective tool we have in the fight against COVID-19. Parents who have vaccine-eligible students should make plans now to send their kids back to school vaccinated."
But there's no expectation of a new mask mandate.
"The point is really futile," Dunn told reporters during a news conference in Salt Lake City when asked if she would seek to make her recommendations about masks in schools mandatory through the process created by new laws that lifted COVID-19 restrictions and gave lawmakers the final say.
"We as public health folks, both local and state, have been in discussions with legislative leadership and they've been very clear that their intent is not to have mask mandates," Dunn said, calling for the community to come together "and normalize kids under the age of 12 wearing masks to school indoors."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said "if we don't take the next step as a community, I fear that some of the things that we've been able to do could be reined back. I'm not talking about regulation. I'm just talking about health and common sense."
The mayor, a Democrat, said the county's authority is limited by new state laws that give lawmakers the power to override local elected officials on public health orders, so "advocacy, if you believe and want further restrictions, needs to be with the state Legislature."
The Senate president said because the pandemic is ever-changing, "whatever decision we make, whatever direction we go, we have to be flexible enough to be able to respond to the situation. So I would caution anybody against coming up with a hard-line anything when it comes to the virus."
'We are here to sound the alarm'
Their comments come as COVID-19 cases are surging in Utah, reaching nearly 900 Wednesday and 815 Thursday. Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus first found in India, the new cases, hospitalizations and deaths are nearly entirely among those who have not been vaccinated.
Although the shots are free and widely available throughout the state to anyone over 12, just over 50% of all Utahns have gotten at least one dose, and less than 46% are fully vaccinated, meaning it's been two weeks or more since their final dose.
"Today we are here to sound the alarm," Dunn said. "COVID is once again surging in our Salt Lake County community. But it's different than our surges last summer at this time. Now we've got very effective and safe vaccines. So that means the pandemic is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated."
Wednesday marked Salt Lake County's highest case count since March 2, at 242 new cases, she said, a number that's jumped more than 20% in the past week. Dunn pointed to children under 12 who are not yet eligible for the vaccine as especially vulnerable, comparing them to newborn infants, too young to be protected against various diseases.
She said she's recommending that all children under 12 wear masks indoors when school starts as the "next layer" for protecting them since COVID-19 continues to spread quickly in crowded settings where there are a lot of unvaccinated people.
"This is a temporary recommendation," Dunn said. "Right now, it is our collective responsibility to protect those who don't even have the option of getting vaccinated." Approval to vaccinate children under 12 could come this fall from the federal government, although it could be well into the new school year.
Salt Lake County Council Chairman Steve DeBry urged Utahns to get vaccinated.
"This is preventable. All we have to do is go get vaccinated. Prior to getting the vaccinations, we were in a no-man's land. We were groping, we had to wear masks, we shut everything down. I don't want to take four steps forward and all of a sudden take four steps back," DeBry, a Republican, said.
Encouragement for masks in schools — in Salt Lake County
Salt Lake County-area school districts responded to Dunn's proposal.
Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said the district has and "will continue to encourage mask-wearing for children under the age of 12 and for those who have not been vaccinated."
The Salt Lake City School District is taking a similar approach.
"We've seen throughout the pandemic that mask-wearing has been effective at helping stop the spread of disease. We will continue to encourage mask-wearing for those under age 12, for those who are not vaccinated, and for anyone — employee or student — who feels more comfortable coming to school with a mask," said spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin.
In the Canyons School District, spokesman Jeff Haney said "we're hard at work on the plans for the upcoming school year, and we remain committed to having safe and welcoming environments. Regarding masks, we encourage parents to consider the recommendations of local health authorities, as well as their family's private physician."
In southern Utah, there appears to be little interest in recommending that masks be worn by school children.
The Southwest Utah Public Health Department. which serves Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington countries, don't have any recommendations on masks in schools, spokesman David Heaton said during a virtual news conference about the impact of COVID-19 in the St. George area.
"We do understand, of course, the concern that people have with school getting back into session. We expect to see a surge in COVID-19 as it joins the landscape of cold and flu season, either a continuation of the surge we're seeing now or an additional surge," Heaton said.
The regional health department's "main message" is to get vaccinated, he said, adding that more shots will provide an added "degree of protection" to children too young for the vaccine. The vaccination rate for the five-county area is estimated at about 40%, Heaton said, lower than the state overall.
Utah's latest coronavirus numbers
With the 815 new COVID-19 cases reported Thursday by the state health department, Utah has had a total of 426,418 positive cases of the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020. There have been nearly 3 million vaccine doses administered in the state, a daily increase of 5,847.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 640 per day, and 5,079 people were tested and 8,483 tests conducted in Utah since Wednesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is now 9.2% when all results are included and 13.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
Currently, there are 291 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, and the state's death toll is 2,425, including a new death reported Thursday, a Salt Lake County man between 45 and 64 who was hospitalized at the time of his death.
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez