SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox made it clear Tuesday Utah won't be joining New York City in requiring COVID-19 vaccinations to eat inside restaurants or work out at a gym, but the state will provide N95 masks to schoolchildren under 12, who are too young to get the shots.
As New York City became the first in the nation to impose a vaccine requirement for public activities, Cox warned there may be other consequences for Utahns who won't get vaccinated, including hospitalization and death, sharing stories of people who thought they didn't need the shots until they contracted the deadly virus.
"While we've made a collective decision as a nation and as a state, a decision which I support, that the government will not force people to get the vaccine. That doesn't mean we're free from our consequence, that others won't choose to require vaccines," including employers and event organizers, he said.
Cox also told reporters at a news conference held at St. Mark's Hospital in Millcreek he wasn't sure he would follow new advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all Americans wear face coverings in hot spots, even if they are fully vaccinated, to slow the spread of the highly contagious delta variant of the virus.
"I've got to be honest with you, I don't know if I'm one of those people. I'm really tired. I'm really done with it. And I'm not real excited to have to sacrifice to protect someone who doesn't seem to care. But I'm glad there are some people willing to do that. Thank you," said the governor, who is fully vaccinated.
He pointed out that both the state and school districts are prohibited by the Utah Legislature's actions from mandating masks in schools, but said he is working to distribute the medical-grade masks to children not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.
The governor's plan was labeled "a great initiative" later Tuesday by Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. Dunn, who until this spring helped lead the state's COVID-19 response, called last month for children until 12 to return to school in masks.
Although Dunn said then any attempt to make masks mandatory in schools would be "futile" because of the limits state lawmakers put on other entities to impose any COVID-19 restrictions, opponents of requiring children to wear masks in schools filled a Salt Lake County Council work session.
Council members heard more than two hours of often emotional testimony from the crowd before Dunn gave a presentation that included a projection showing that without masks and other prevention measures, there would be an estimated 60 cases per day, with an average of one child being hospitalized with the virus every other day.
She said she was not putting forth a mask mandate in schools, which could be overturned by the County Council or state lawmakers. Instead, Dunn said, she wants to "continue this discussion" about keeping children under 12 safe from the virus.
Cox said that more than masks, getting adults vaccinated against COVID-19 is the best way to protect children under 12 from the virus. He said states that have very low vaccination rates are seeing more young children becoming seriously ill after catching the coronavirus.
The governor's announcement follows another new recommendation from the CDC, that everyone in K-12 schools nationwide wear masks. The reasoning behind the new recommendations is that the delta variant of the virus spreads more easily to even the fully vaccinated, although breakthrough cases are still rare and usually mild.
Monday, the Utah Department of Health released a new set of guidelines to help schools deal with COVID-19 that encourages those 12 and older who are eligible to be vaccinated to get the shots as well as mask-wearing indoors at schools.
'Nobody can tell me when this is going to turn around'
Vaccinations are what's key, Cox said, to stopping the latest surge, which is threatening to fill Utah hospitals at levels not seen since cases rose dramatically after the start of the 2020 school year and continued to climb through the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's holidays.
Greg Bell, head of the Utah Hospital Association, said at the news conference that when the delta variant began to take hold last month, the state's intensive care units went from 10% COVID-19 patients to 30% as of Sunday on top of an already busy summer trauma season.
"We can't handle it," Bell said, citing burnout among many in the medical profession on top of facilities at near-capacity. His "grandfatherly" advice to the unvaccinated? "The wrong decision could kill you and you won't know until it's too late."
The governor said he's hopeful the state is nearing the crest of the cases "but nobody can tell me when this is going to turn around ... we need that vaccination rate to go up. Less than half of all Utahns are fully vaccinated, meaning it's been two weeks or more since their final dose.
Utah officials, including those from local and public health agencies, "are doing all we can to keep you safe. But all we can do is make recommendations," Cox said. "Now the responsibility is in your hands to get vaccinated. Together we can save lives and help health care workers."
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, along with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Utah Hospital Association president Greg Bell and Utah Department of Health Deputy Director Dr. Michelle Hofmann, spoke at a news conference Tuesday. Watch the replay of the event below.
He did offer what he termed good news, that Utah's vaccination numbers are starting to go up a bit, but "not nearly enough." The governor said Utahns should listen to the voices they trust, including the Catholic pope and the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who both praised the vaccines.
And, Cox said, "if politics is your religion, then believe Donald Trump, who was so instrumental in getting this vaccine to us, who got the vaccine himself and has encouraged others to get the vaccine." He also suggested Democrats turn to President Joe Biden, who just met his July 4th goal of 70% of the nation's adults getting at least one dose.
"It's one of those rare things that so many people can agree on, from different walks of life, from different races, from different religions," the governor said. "This is here to save lives. We don't have to be going through this again right now if you will just please, please, please get the vaccine."
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said she still struggles with shortness of breath and other long-term effects from having COVID-19 a year ago, before vaccines were available. As Utah's case numbers rise again, Henderson told reporters, she's been "feeling a little bit of unease and nervousness and distrust" because of her experience.
"The thing about COVID is, you just never know. You never know who it's going to affect and how. You never know if you're going to be one of the lucky ones — and there are a lot of lucky ones — or if you're going to be one of the ones who are unlucky," she said. "I do consider myself one of the lucky ones, even though I was very sick."
Henderson said vaccines were "supposed to be the tool that fixed all of this for all of us and somehow, that has been politicized and somehow, we've got a large portion of the population that has chosen not to get vaccinated." She said she believes their minds won't be changed.
Utah's COVID-19 case count nation's 9th highest per capita
Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported 728 new COVID-19 cases and five additional deaths from the virus since Monday. The department's deputy director, Dr. Michelle Hofmann, said Utah has the nation's ninth-highest case incidence rate, at 136 per 100,000 people per week.
Hofmann said since July 1, Utah COVID-19 cases have increased 5% and hospitalizations, 7%, with the 12th highest hospitalization rate and 11th highest percent positivity rate in the country but rank 33rd for the number of residents who are fully vaccinated.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 877 per day, and 6,018 people were tested and 10,576 tests conducted since the last report. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 10.6% when all results are included, and 15% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
The daily increase in vaccinations is 6,830 doses.
Currently, there are 395 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. Utah's death toll has reached 2,471 with the five deaths reported Tuesday. They are:
- A Millard County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Kane County man, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Utah County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Utah County woman, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.
- A Sanpete County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.