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SALT LAKE CITY — A couple hundred individuals rallied on the state Capitol steps Saturday in favor of letting health officials make public health decisions instead of politicians.
Signs showed that people are "for public health" while other signs talked about saving lives or listening to science.
The attendees are frustrated at the Utah Legislature majority's actions to outlaw mask mandates across the state and asked for local control and health department control over health issues. While the group sat on the steps, people who are dealing with longer-term effects from COVID-19 in themselves or family members spoke as well as doctors, public health officials, teachers and students.
Chris Phillips, president of the Utah Concerned Coalition, said the coalition includes people from various counties and political backgrounds, and is full of parents and community members who care about the health of children.
"Our governor and Legislature belittled public health tools like masking because, on their own, they're imperfect. But our COVID defenses aren't intended to be used on their own. Our knowledge of what works well and what doesn't work well, has advanced so far. Today, we have in our disposition a number of good tools that can serve together as a solid defense, but our Legislature has made it nearly impossible to truly use these tools in our communities — even in the face of a crisis," Phillips said.
Utah Concerned Coalition is an organization that filed a lawsuit against state and Salt Lake County leaders after they took steps to halt mask mandates earlier in the pandemic. Phillips said on Saturday that not having a mask mandate keeps children who are immunocompromised or have other health issues from receiving an in-person education, which is one of their rights.
He said politicians in Utah have consistently restricted local experts from helping their communities. Politics and public health are connected, Phillips said, but the best policies are formed when politicians consult and work with health leaders on matters that relate to public health.
"While public health is indeed political, it ought not be partisan. To tie up public health in a legislative ball of yarn is to urge this crisis onward. And that is what we're seeing from our leaders today," Phillips said.
Dr. David N. Sundwall, a physician who has also helped create national and state health policy previously as the executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said he is a Republican and supports limited government and conservative values, but one important role of government is to ensure the health of its citizens.
"I call upon everybody here to respect each other. Please, let's not demonize the detractors of public health," Sundwall said. "But I also call upon those who were reluctant to government interventions to demonstrate that they also can benefit if we just get this virus under control."
He said that those in the public health community do need to demonstrate humility and acknowledge that some policies have not proven to be as effective as officials once hoped and caused poor economic and emotional health outcomes.
Dr. Marc E. Babitz, a former deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, said he has never seen politics interfere with public health like it has during the pandemic. He said he remembers community responses to smallpox and polio vaccinations, and how they received a universal positive response.
"What is wrong with us? Wake up, America," Babitz said.
He expressed that the term freedom should mean that everyone has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that someone else's freedom does not have the right to interfere with his life or liberty. He said freedom is not as important. He said there is a "me culture" becoming more prominent and replacing concern for others.
"The irony of the 'me culture' for these people who choose to not take preventive measures against COVID, when that 'me culture' person gets sick, where do they go? They go to the hospital. And they expect the 'we' and 'us' who have been taking precautions all this time to take care of them. Is that how it works? If they really believe in their freedom to do what they want, then don't go to the hospital. Prove to me that you're fine and stay out there on your own," Babitz said.
Stephanie Arceneaux said that she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child after contracting a virus, and that data shows that children who have had COVID-19 are 166% more likely to develop Type 1 diabetes. She said people need to be more cautious because a virus like COVID-19 could lead to other negative health outcomes.
Arceneaux said she, her husband, and her only child all have diabetes and are considered high risk.
"We are more vulnerable because we are high risk. This does not make us disposable. We are not statistics waiting to happen. Which is why we rely on everyone working together to do everything possible to diminish the proliferation of COVID," Arceneaux said.
Lisa O'Brien, who founded a Facebook group for other Utah "long-haulers," said that the group has over 4,000 members and many Utahns are dealing with various long-term effects from COVID-19 even when they had a light initial case of coronavirus and previously had good health. O'Brien said studies show that 30% of individuals who contract COVID-19 will have lasting symptoms, which at this point would be over 250,000 Utahns.
"We must not ignore the real significant risk of long COVID as we discuss the future of this pandemic. The community at large deserves to know the true risk of even a mild COVID infection, and leaving it out is dismissive to those who are still struggling. We cannot let the survivors of COVID-19 be forgotten and left to suffer alone and in silence," O'Brien said.
Many of the speakers thanked teachers and said mask requirements would make schools safer.
Kelly Whited Jones, a teacher in the Davis School District, said she now has to think constantly about the physical safety of her students. She has the responsibility of letting them know when they may have been exposed and asking them to get tested for COVID-19. Jones wears multiple masks so that she has an effective mask, but still looks like a teacher and not a nurse.
"The only day that I didn't spend a few extra minutes thinking about safety was the first day back this semester when the mask mandate was in place in Salt Lake County and I didn't have to take valuable class time to warn the students. They all wore their masks. Instead we focused on learning together, safer," Jones said.
She said that even the local gas station has more measures to protect its workers and asked why money is being spent on testing for COVID-19 but not on preventative measures.
In addition to a few teachers, multiple students who planned walkouts at their schools in support of mask mandates spoke at Saturday's rally. Some said that they do not feel safe at school, and others said that they are faced with the choice of going to school and risking getting COVID-19 and passing it to family members with health problems or missing education.
Carly McAleer, one of four students at the rally who helped plan a walkout at Park City High School, said for the last few months she has felt fear going to school. She said the Utah Legislature's actions to overturn the Summit County mask mandate feels to her like a "complete disregard" for the safety of her, her teachers, and others at the school.
"Protecting one another used to be common sense, we teach it in schools. But now it's become political. The top immunologists, virologists and doctors in the country have shown time and time again that wearing masks, getting vaccinated and physically distancing to the best of our ability reduces the spread of COVID-19. Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It's a commitment to the safety of your friends and community members," McAleer said.
She said it is a small thing that anyone can do to help others feel protected, and encouraged people to wear masks for others.