SALT LAKE CITY — Although there's no school mask mandate in place, Salt Lake County health officials continue to work with school superintendents and other stakeholders to make sure kids are safe when they return to classrooms in a few weeks.
Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn said Thursday that the department is "aligned" with guidelines from the Utah Department of Health, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other public health agencies that recommend everyone in schools wear masks to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
"It is very clear that (masking) is beneficial," Dunn said during a meeting of the county's board of health on Thursday morning. "The science is there, right, that masks prevent spread, they keep kids healthy."
The county health department's guidance will continue to remain just a recommendation, Dunn said. There's no current plan for a mandate.
Utah health officials reported 1,096 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, along with seven deaths and 7,653 more vaccinations administered. There are 395 Utahns hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, and the state's rolling seven-day average for positive cases is now at 905, according to the state health department.
A school mask mandate could be immediately vetoed by a majority vote from the Salt Lake County Council or a joint resolution from the Utah State Legislature, she said. Board of health chair Dorothea Verbrugge noted that the authority to institute a school mask mandate lies with the health department, not the board.
More information about the Utah Department of Health's COVID-19 guidelines for schools is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/education.
Superintendents of Salt Lake County's public school districts and charter schools are committed to doing everything they can to keep students safe, within the scope of their authority, Dunn said. Health officials and school leaders are expecting another COVID-19 surge when school starts, she said.
Four of the five districts will be offering COVID-19 testing twice a week, she said. Schools also have plans for more preventative measures, such as keeping students in cohorts and offering frequent hand-washing stations, she added.
"That's a good thing, they're all on board," Dunn said.
She added that legislation banning schools from instituting mask mandates only applies to public schools and charters. Private schools can do whatever they think is best, Dunn said.
Earlier this week during a Salt Lake County Council work session, a group of parents protested against a rumored school mask mandate, even though the council wasn't considering one. Thursday, a handful of parents spoke again on the matter during the board of health's meeting, but all but one of the six who spoke were in favor of mask mandates in schools.
"Part of the responsibility of being a grown-up is taking care of our children — our neighbors and our own," said Zachary Noyce, who spoke during the meeting's public comment period.
He said that in an environment where masks are optional, parents are forced to send their kids to a place that is potentially unsafe. He urged the health department to consider requiring masks at schools.
But another man who spoke during the meeting said he doubts the effectiveness of masks because kids don't wear them correctly all the time. The man said he'd seen his kids sip drinks through their masks and then fail to put them back on afterward. Government in a free society shouldn't order people to do something, the man said.
"Mandates destroy what little trust there still is in government," he said.
Holly Uphold, another citizen who commented during the meeting, said even if kids aren't wearing masks properly all the time, they can still help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"I think what we all know is masks work," she said.
Jenny Nazarro, another parent who spoke, also urged the health department to consider instituting a mandate, especially when the highly contagious delta variant has the potential to spread to kids who haven't had an opportunity to get vaccinated yet. She said the message coming from parents who are against mask mandates is a dangerous one.
"I am terrified to send my kids into this," she said. "It's just very frustrating that we're abandoning this (masking) idea."
Hospitals nearly full
Of the 395 COVID-19 patients in Utah hospitals, 168 are in intensive care as of Thursday, the health department reported.
About 81% of all intensive care unit hospital beds are now occupied in Utah, including about 83% of beds at the state's 16 referral hospitals. Those numbers mean that there is a major strain on the health care systems in Utah, and hospitals are nearly unable to provide any more staffed ICU beds.
In addition, about 62% of the state's non-ICU hospital beds are occupied, health officials said.
The positive test rate per day for the last seven days calculated with the "people over people" method is now 15%. The positive test rate per day for that time period calculated with the "test over test" method is now 10.6%.
A total of 3,057,979 vaccines have now been administered in Utah, according to the health department. There are now 1,694,833 Utahns, or about 52.9% of the total population, that have received at least a first dose, and 1,494,266 Utahns, or about 46.6% of the population, are fully vaccinated.
For vaccine-eligible Utahns who are 12 and older, 65.4% have received at least a first dose, and 57.6% are fully vaccinated.
Of the 2,952,797 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 14.8% have tested positive for COVID-19. The number of total tests conducted since the pandemic began in Utah is now at 5,371,010, up 11,965 since Wednesday. Of those, 7,283 are tests for people who hadn't previously been tested for the disease.
The seven deaths reported Thursday were:
- A Box Elder County woman between the ages of 65 and 84 who was hospitalized when she died.
- A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
- A Box Elder County man between 25-44, who was hospitalized.
- A Salt Lake County woman between 45-64, who was hospitalized.
- A Washington County man between 45-64, who was hospitalized.
- A Utah County woman, older than 85, who was hospitalized.
- A Cache County man, older than 85, who was hospitalized.
Thursday's totals give Utah 437,585 total confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 18,867 total hospitalizations and 2,486 total deaths from the disease.
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.