SALT LAKE CITY — A new statewide health order in effect through March 25 would no longer make wearing masks mandatory in counties designated as having low COVID-19 transmission rates once the state’s allocation of vaccine reaches some four times the current level.
Masks are now required to be worn statewide indoors in public settings and outdoors when social distancing is not possible, but that will change in low transmission counties eight weeks after Utah has received 1,633,000 first vaccine doses from the federal government, enough for about 70% of the state’s adults.
Currently, that number is at just under 445,000, and it’s not clear when the state expects to hit the targeted amount. But Gov. Spencer Cox told Democrats in the Utah Legislature Tuesday he wanted to address a proposed bill that ends public health emergency powers once enough Utahns are vaccinated or have had the virus.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, HB294, was introduced in early February but has not been assigned to a committee for a hearing.
“We wanted to be really intentional about this and really thoughtful about it, and have some metrics in place so everybody kind of knows what we’re looking for,” Cox said during a caucus meeting of House and Senate Democrats.
“At some point, we will cross this threshold to where everybody has an opportunity now to have gotten the vaccine to protect themselves,” the governor said, touting the results of a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that showed 80% of the state believes Utah’s vaccine distribution is fair.
Cox is anticipating a steady increase in Utah’s vaccine allotment and has already lowered the eligibility age to 65 and older. On March 1, Utahns with specified medical conditions will also join health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staffs, and K-12 teachers and school staffs on the list.
Rich Saunders, Utah Department of Health executive director, told the Democratic caucus there needs to be an end in sight to the mask mandate.
“If we don’t know what it looks like, then we won’t know when we arrive. We have to be accountable to determine what we have to reach in order to do away with masks,” Saunders said. “This is one of the most controversial issues of this whole pandemic.”
He said even after the threshold is reached and masks are no longer required, they can still be worn “and we’ll even encourage it for a little while.”
The new health order comes as the Utah Department of Health is reporting 716 new cases of COVID-19 and 12 additional deaths Tuesday. Utah’s death toll has reached 1,865, and there have now been more than 500,000 lives lost to the virus in the United States, a milestone marked by the lowering of state flags.
New directives as conditions change
As previously announced, there are changes to how the transmission level is determined by the state. Utah is now counting all tests taken by an individual to calculate the percent of positive tests. Previously, only one test from an individual each 90 days was counted, resulting in a higher rate, so the acceptable range has been lowered.
Also, people will be able to sit side by side at movie theaters, sporting events, weddings as well as concerts and other entertainment as long as they all wear masks and can attest to not having any COVID-19 symptoms or exposure. The event hosts must be able to contact attendees if someone at the event tests positive.
At events, masks can be removed to eat or drink, but social distancing must be maintained from separate parties during that time. Bars in counties with moderate transmission levels no longer have to limit occupancy to 75%, and customers must only wear masks when they are within 6 feet of a separate party.
For schools, the new order creates a testing protocol so school dances and other events can be hosted.
The “Test to Play” program for COVID-19 will now be required of all high school students participating in school-sponsored extracurricular activities and students must follow the isolation and quarantine protocols found in the school manual.
The order also places a higher emphasis on in-person learning instead of schools shifting to online instruction when certain thresholds are met, which is what lawmakers have been pushing for since Trump administration officials Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Deborah Birx visited Utah last winter.
Under the “Test to Stay” program, students who test positive must switch to remote learning for 10 days. Those who choose not to be tested may still have to give up in-person learning depending on how many student are tested and a school’s positive test rate.
More information on the state’s transmission index is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-health-guidance-levels. Five of Utah’s 29 counties are now at a low transmission level, Daggett, Garfield, Piute, Rich and Wayne, and eight are in the moderate level.
The new order, signed Monday night by Saunders, replaces a previous order that expired at midnight.
Later Tuesday, Cox issued a new executive order on the state’s vaccination plan that now says the state health department will establish eligibility in consultation with the governor’s office. That will allow more Utahns to be added to the list, likely based on age, as more vaccines become available without a new order.
Warnings to not put off medical care
Also Tuesday, doctors from both University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare urged Utahns to get the medical care they need now rather than put off cancer screenings like mammograms and colonoscopies, as well as other procedures because of the pandemic.
“It’s not time to delay anymore. It’s time to put on a mask and come in,” Dr. Jose Rodriguez, a University of Utah Health professor of family medicine, said during a virtual news conference. He said there have been some conflicting messages in the past because appointments were canceled, but that it is now safe to see a doctor in person.
More than 80% of the university’s doctors have been vaccinated, Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer for University of Utah Health, said. The shots cannot be mandated because the vaccine, authorized for emergency use, has yet to receive full Federal Food and Drug Administration approval.
Vinik warned waiting for screenings can lead to “bad outcomes” for patients when diseases aren’t detected early. The same is true of postponing children’s immunizations, he said, because the last thing that’s needed in the midst of a pandemic is “another outbreak of something easily preventable, like measles.”
Dr. Kirk Knowlton, director of cardiovascular research and associate chief of cardiology at the Intermountain Healthcare Heart Institute, said there are instances where people are even afraid to go to a hospital when they are experiencing a heart attack.
“If they’re having a stroke, it’s really important they come in right away. There have been too many stories of people who are unfortunately afraid they’ll get COVID and wait. And either they complete a heart attack or a few have even died at home,” Knowlton said. “That’s a real problem that we worry a lot about.”
Utah reported administering an additional 11,966 vaccine doses since Monday, for a total of 623,876 first and second doses. The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 779 per day, and another 6,458 Utahns have been tested, and 18,480 test performed.
The rolling seven-day for the percent of positive tests when all tests are counted is 6.2%, the new method the state is using to help determine a county’s transmission level, and 13.34% if only a single test taken by an individual over a 90-day period is counted.
There are 239 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19.
The 12 new deaths, which include seven that occurred before Feb. 1, are:
• A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident
• A Utah County man, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident
• A Cache County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident
• A Sevier County woman, older than 85, not hospitalized at time of death
• A Davis County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident
• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized at time of death
• A Weber County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death
• A Sevier County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident
• A Salt Lake County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death
• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident
• A Washington County man, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident
• A Davis County man, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death
Contributing: Marjorie Cortez