UTAH (ABC4) – We’re not out of the woods yet.
Although many factors have suggested that the COVID-19 pandemic may be in its waning stages — such as Utah Governor Spencer J. Cox no longer holding weekly briefings, the state’s daily new case counts being lower than they were at the start of 2021, and the vaccine now being widely available — health officials are still keeping an eye on the Delta and Lamdba variants and their potential to reignite the issue.
It’s starting to become a bigger problem elsewhere in the United States.
On Thursday, Los Angeles County health officials renewed an indoor mask mandate for all, regardless of vaccination status, after new case counts had exceeded 1,000 every day for a week. Dr. Muntu Davis, the county’s top public health officer, called the situation “substantial community transmission,” while calling for the mandate to go into effect this weekend.
Further up the coast, a coalition of Bay Area counties stopped short of a mandate but issued a joint statement recommending masks be worn again indoors and in busy outdoor areas.
“The highly infectious Delta variant is now the predominant strain in Contra Costa County,” said Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano. “While vaccines remain our best tool against COVID-19, masking in indoor and crowded outdoor settings will help us curb the spread of this latest wave of infection.”
While Californians are having to take a step back on the mask issue, Utah health officials have not made such a move. As of now, the rule is simple: mask up if you must, don’t if you don’t need to.
“Our recommendations are in line with CDC. If you’re vaccinated, then there’s no need for you to be wearing a mask. If you’re not vaccinated, you should consider wearing masks at times where you might be exposed to large crowds and potentially infected people,” Utah Department of Health communications director Tom Hudachko told ABC4 on June 29.
That said, the department is monitoring the situation with the Delta variant closely. Fortunately, according to Hudachko, the solution is simple.
“It looks like it’s got the potential to spread more easily than some of the other variants that we’ve seen,” he said. “The good news is that it also appears to be susceptible to the vaccine. So the pretty obvious answer here for everybody is to get vaccinated.”
Continuing the vaccination efforts has been a major objective for many of the top leaders in the state. On June 10, Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, standing in for the Governor, rattled off a series of statistics indicating how impactful the vaccine can be in the fight against the coronavirus.
At the time of her address at the statewide briefing, Utah had reported 22,767 total cases. Of that number, 99.6% occurred within the group of unvaccinated people. Additionally, 95% of hospitalizations have occurred with unvaccinated folks with 62 of the 64 reported deaths being attributed to unvaccinated residents.
“It should be obvious to most everyone that the vaccines are working to prevent most cases, hospitalizations, and deaths,” Henderson said.
Hudachko echoed the Lt. Gov.’s remarks when speaking to ABC4 at the end of June, even as the Delta variant has expanded its reach within the United States.
“I think the biggest thing is that the vaccines work,” he states. “We’re seeing a bit of a surge right now in cases and the vast majority of our cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are amongst nonvaccinated people. So it’s really clear where this virus is currently spreading and it’s spreading among people who have not taken the time to get vaccinated yet.”
As for whether or not the department would be able to recommend mask-wearing again, Hudachko explains that due to the passing of recent legislation, mask mandates must go through additional steps as compared to the beginning of the pandemic.
The most notable of those pieces of legislation was H.B. 294, which was tagged as the “End Game Bill” for setting the standards of ending COVID-19 related emergency powers and certain public health orders. According to the bill, any public health order would be lifted or terminated on the day that the state’s 14-day case rate dropped below 191 per 100,000, the seven-day hospitalization dipped to less than 15%, and 1,633,000 prime doses of the vaccine were obtained.
Utah reached all the above thresholds on May 4 and the mask mandate was terminated on May 10.
Should the Delta variant continue to spread and cause further disruption, getting Utahns back in masks would be difficult if needed. The End Game Bill does not outline a plan to re-institute a mask mandate, and other pieces of law — including H.B. 1007, which prohibits an institution of higher learning or a public education system from requiring masks — also set roadblocks for officials to implement another mask mandate.
Henderson and Hudachko would both say that the best way to prevent any sort of discussion on mask requirements would be for Utahns to get vaccinated. However, as the state nears its July 4 deadline of 70% of eligible residents getting at least one dose of the vaccine, even Gov. Cox has acknowledged that the state will likely fall short of that target.
That doesn’t mean, however, that a return to the height of the pandemic would be imminent. Getting 70% of Utahns vaccinated and achieving herd immunity is not synonymous, Hudachko noted.
“It’s going to be difficult to get to 70%, but it’s not a line in the sand where if you don’t get better than that, all is lost,” he explains. “Seventy percent is the goal that we set for ourselves and if we get there, fantastic. If we don’t, it’s still incredible to have 65% of people vaccinated or whatever the case may be.”
EDITOR NOTE: A previous version of this story ran on June 29, before the mask mandate renewal in Los Angeles County and the recommendation from health officials in the Bay Area. Portions of this story have been updated to reflect those developments. ABC4.com is working to reach out to local officials for any updated information on changes that could affect Utah residents.