MILLCREEK, Utah (ABC4) – As the Delta variant continues to bring up Utah’s total number of COVID-19 cases, state leaders are addressing their concerns with what they call a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.”

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and vaccines

Utah now has the ninth highest coronavirus case rate in the nation, according to Dr. Michelle Hoffman, the deputy director of the Utah Department of Health.

She said cases and hospitalizations have continued to increase for more than a month now and said it’s likely from younger populations not getting the shot.

“We can’t predict who’s going to get severe COVID-19 or die. The good news is that it’s never too late to get vaccinated – even if you’ve already had COVID-19,” Dr. Hoffman said.

And just when people thought the pandemic was nearing its end, Greg Bell with the Utah Hospital Association said the Delta variant has changed that.

“The Delta variant started to take hold and we went from 10% ICU capacity being COVID patients to now, as of Sunday, 30% of ICUs are now full of COVID patients,” Bell said.

As hospitals see an increase of patients, Dr. Hoffman and Bell encourage Utahns to get the shot to help limit the number of severe COVID-19 cases.

Governor Spencer Cox also reiterated the importance of vaccination.

“We’re doing all we can to keep you safe, but all we can do is make recommendations,” Gov. Cox said. “Now the responsibility is in your hands to get vaccinated. Together we can save lives and help our healthcare workers.”

High-quality masks: ‘The next best thing’ for kids

For kids under the age of 12, a COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available, and healthcare professionals said it leaves children at risk of contracting the virus.

Gov. Cox said his office will provide students with a free, FDA-registered N95 or KN95 mask if they want one.

With summer vacation coming to an end and school beginning in the next few weeks, Gov. Cox said while the state cannot mandate masks in schools due to a bill that bans that authority, they can support kids masking up.

“What we do know is that high-quality masks are the next best thing to a vaccination. So, if you can’t get a vaccination, we encourage everyone to wear a high-quality, KN95 or N95 mask,” he said.

The Governor said if schools begin to see coronavirus outbreaks, the local health department, along with that county’s elected officials have the power to mandate masks, but only for a 30-day timeframe unless extended by the county’s council or commission.  

Dr. Hoffman said models show there are more COVID-19 cases in 5-to-18-year-olds (K-12) than what was reported last summer.

Helping to move the needle

For those eligible and not vaccinated, Gov. Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said they recognize their voices most likely don’t make a difference – which is why they’re turning their efforts to employers and physicians who they said can help move the needle.

“My message for business owners is that Gov. Cox and I support you if you decide to require your employees to be vaccinated,” she said.

“My next message is for physicians…you play a critical role in this and you have a responsibility in this as the leader in the healthcare industry, as someone your patients look up to,” Henderson said. “Please reach out – proactively – to all of your patients who are not vaccinated and make sure they get vaccinated…And you can still help your patients be informed about the dire consequences, not only for them personally, but for those they might love.”

Gov. Spencer Cox also reiterated the importance of physicians making patients aware of factual information.

Henderson concluded her remarks, pleading with employers and physicians to “be a part of the solution.”

“Everybody who’s unvaccinated is part of the problem – the reason we’re here today,” she said.

Health officials continue to study the movement of the current surge in cases. However, Dr. Hoffman said it’s not entirely known yet when the state may begin to see cases trend back down.

Masking up (again)

As the Delta variant remains rampant in Utah, the Governor said Utahns may begin to see more businesses requiring people to wear a mask and he said people need to respect that.

He continued to say the frustrating thing about why some businesses are requiring masks again is not because the vaccinated need to wear masks, but because cases and hospitals are on the rise.

“The CDC is asking all of you (once again) to take one for the team, to protect people who are not vaccinated but have the opportunity to do so,” Gov. Cox said. “I’m grateful there are people that are willing to sacrifice and wear masks again to protect the unvaccinated. I gotta be honest with you, I don’t know if I’m one of those people. I’m really tired, I’m really done with it and I’m not real excited to have to sacrifice to protect someone who doesn’t seem to care.”