ST. GEORGE — Following the release of an internal memo from the state epidemiologist that recommends Utah returns to a higher level of pandemic restrictions in order to counter the continuing rise of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Gary Herbert said Monday he has “no plans to shut down Utah’s economy.”
Among the measures Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, recommends for fighting the spread of the virus is having more emphasis placed on wearing face masks in public and social distancing.
This effort has seen support with the “#MaskUpUtah” campaign launched Tuesday by the Utah Hospital Association and Utah’s four largest health care systems.
The face mask initiative is set to continue through the summer months in an effort to reduce community transmission of the virus.
The memo and Herbert’s response
In an internal memo released to state government and health officials last Friday, Dunn wrote:
We are in the acceleration phase of the COVID-19 outbreak in Utah. We went yellow on May 15. Our surge in cases started on May 27, 12 days after going yellow. Utahns care about these colors. They change their actions based on them. They are the key messaging tool to the public.
All of our goals are aligned – keep the economy open and prevent deaths/illnesses. We are quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown. This might be our last chance for course correction. Contact tracing and testing alone will not control this outbreak.
The memo was obtained by Utah news outlets that reported on it Monday.
Dunn also wrote that if COVID-19 cases do not dip to a seven-day average of 200 cases by July 1, the entire state needs to move back to its previous orange threat-level status.
“This will send the message to Utahns that this outbreak continues to be a serious problem, and state leadership is committed to saving lives and preventing a complete economic shutdown,” Dunn wrote.
As of Tuesday, an additional 394 virus cases were reported by the Utah Health Department. There were also five additional deaths, bringing the total number of virus-related deaths to 163. None of Tuesday’s deaths occurred in the southwest Utah region, though 47 news COVID-19 cases were reported. Statewide virus cases stand at 18,300.
The state has averaged 478 cases per day over the last week following a steady increase in positive rates over the last month, state figures show.
Herbert initially responded to reports concerning the memo over Twitter Monday.
“Dr. Dunn’s internal memo raises alarm about the increasing COVID-19 cases in Utah,” Herbert said in a short tweet thread Monday. “I appreciate her analysis and share many of her concerns. We will work to stem this tide, but I have no plans to shut down Utah’s economy. I urge Utahns to protect themselves and their loved ones from the spread of the virus by following our common sense guidelines for social distancing, good hand hygiene and especially the use of face coverings.”
Washington County officials have expressed a desire for fewer virus restrictions over seeing stricter ones get reinstated. Washington County Commissioner Victor has been particularly opposed to such a possibility.
Face masks and the #MaskUpUtah campaign
“Clinical leaders for Intermountain Healthcare, MountainStar Healthcare, Steward Healthcare, and University of Utah Health, are concerned about the rising number of COVID-19 cases occurring throughout Utah,” a Tuesday press release from U of U Health stated. “They have come together with one voice to remind Utahns that wearing a mask can make a significant difference in helping to reduce transmission of the virus.”
While Utah’s hospitals are currently able to manage community needs amid the pandemic, if coronavirus cases continue to grow, there are worries that hospitals may be overwhelmed, which will negatively impact the needs of virus and non-virus patients.
“Current trends show a doubling in hospitalizations each week if the transmission rate is not reduced,” the press release stated, echoing data shared in Dunn’s Friday memo.
Dunn recommended in her memo that the state mandate wearing face masks.
“Mandate face coverings, either by government or business enforcement,” Dunn wrote. “If above isn’t reasonable, we need to be clear with public about why decisions are being made lessening restrictions – economic, not health. Be clear about health risk. Be clear about how these decisions are made and who makes them. This will better equip the public to make informed decisions about how to protect themselves and their health.”
However, while Herbert has also been a proponent for wearing face masks along with other cautionary practices, he has not chosen to make them mandatory despite calls for him to do so.
On Tuesday, the Democratic mayors of Utah’s largest city and county urged Herbert to make wearing masks a statewide requirement.
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson formally asked Herbert to grant her authority to make face coverings mandatory in the county at retail and commercial establishments, restaurants while waiting to be seated and served, and at community gatherings. The governor didn’t immediately give an answer.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall tweeted that masks are estimated to be 75-82% effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19.
“Requiring they be worn in public statewide could help us turn the tide and save lives,” she said.
Herbert’s spokeswoman, Brooke Scheffler, said in a statement that he will continue to encourage the use of masks, but didn’t directly address a mandatory use of face coverings. Herbert has said previously he doesn’t think it would work.
“The governor continues to be a strong champion for regular wearing (of) a face covering in public when physical distancing is not possible,” the statement said. “He wears a mask each day to all of his meetings and expects it of those who meet with him.”
Meanwhile, the #MaskUpUtah campaign sets to spread the message of wearing masks over a variety of platforms spanning social media, digital, radio, print and billboards.
“Wearing a mask is one way all Utahns can help reduce transmission and keep these vital resources available to meet the healthcare needs for everyone across the state,” The U of U Health press release stated.
COVID-19 information resources
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Intermountain Healthcare
- To Donate and Volunteer to Help
Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 23, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)
Positive COVID-19 tests: 1,151 (47 new cases)
- Washington County: 899 (35 new)
- Iron County: 233 (9 new)
- Garfield County: 11 (2 new)
- Kane County: 6 (1 new)
- Beaver County: 2
Tested: 17,441 tests performed (as of last report received on 6/22)
Recovered: 726 total recovered (16 new)
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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