Dr. Dunn: Masks, vaccines best way to prevent virus spread

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SALT LAKE CITY — Weeks out from the start of the new school year, one of Utah's foremost public health voices in the fight against COVID-19 is urging students to get vaccinated and urging those who are ineligible to mask up.

"I'm nervous about what's to come in the next several months with COVID," said Dr. Angela Dunn, former state epidemiologist and current executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. "We are all, all excited to move past COVID and start working on addressing needs beyond infectious disease here."

But weeks out from the beginning of school across the state, the focus remains on COVID-19. Dunn explained what the difference is between this year and last year.

"We'll start with the good," she said. "The good is that we got the silver bullet. We've got the vaccines. They work."

The challenge, she said, is the delta variant, a more contagious and potentially more severe variant driving up cases across the state and country. Dunn said the state's COVID-19 case rate is higher now than it was at this time last year. And 20% of the population is under 12 years old and ineligible for the vaccine.

"What keeps me up at night is school starting," she said. "I think the other thing is how quickly we're going to peak … It is possible that we have a surge in cases for a couple of months and then with the increase in vaccinations, it drops. But, while that is good news, it's what happens during those two months of the surges, right? Our hospitals are already over capacity. What's going to happen to those who need care for COVID and other things? How many children are going to need to be hospitalized and have long-term effects? Anything we can do to prevent that is really the way forward for the next few months."

In Salt Lake County after the mask mandate, our cases plummeted. We know it works. It stops the spread. So we need to apply that same line of thinking for our kids under 12 when they go back to school.

–Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director, Salt Lake County Health Department

Dunn pointed to last year's mask mandate issued in Salt Lake County as an example.

"Last fall we were all wearing masks because none of us were vaccinated," she said. "And in Salt Lake County after the mask mandate, our cases plummeted. We know it works. It stops the spread. So we need to apply that same line of thinking for our kids under 12 when they go back to school."

But mandating masks comes with its own challenges. Dunn can issue a public health order, but the county council or the legislature can overturn it.

"We know that mandates worked in the fall but we also know that we need public buy-in. For those mandates, we're not going to send cops out to those schools to enforce it. So, if you don't have public buy-in, you might be causing more harm than good," Dunn said. "But at the same time, it's the right decision to have kids in masks that don't have the opportunity to be vaccinated."

From Thursday:

Dunn said we're in a different situation heading into the school year than we were last year. And like last year, "with once again lot of unknowns." And it's those unknowns and a continuous flow of new information that she said is driving the changing recommendations.

"The public should want that and feel comforted by a scientist or a health officer's ability to say, 'You know what? Things have changed. We need to do things differently,'" Dunn said.

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Matt Rascon


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