Governor asks Utahns to stick to mask-wearing efforts amid signs it may be working against COVID-19

Stock photo. | Photo by JJ Gouin, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert evoked the memory of the state’s founders Wednesday amid signs his edict for people to practice mask-wearing and social distancing or face a mandatory mask order was having some effect on reducing the infection rate – especially in Southern Utah and the Salt Lake County area.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 22, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

Herbert, state and local health officials said they see promising signs that Utahns are heeding the governor’s challenge for residents to wear masks in settings where social distancing can’t be maintained.

The data is also showing that Southern Utah and the state are seeing, at the least, a plateauing from what had been a constant increase in the number of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. 

However, Herbert said the state has still not succeeded in reaching his goal of a seven-day average of less than 500 new cases a day statewide by Aug. 1. As of Wednesday, that number remained above 600. Because of that, Herbert still left open the possibility of additional measures like a mask mandate still being needed if there isn’t further progress in the next week. 

“We’ll see where we are on Aug. 1. I don’t want to presuppose. We’ll let data inform us,” Herbert said at a press conference Wednesday, adding that one possibility may not be an overall mask mandate but an order that they be worn in stores and restaurants.

That wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, as locally Walmart, Costco, Albertsons, Smith’s and Harmons all now require their customers to wear masks. By the end of the month, Target will join them.

“We could just mandate the businesses to mandate masks,” Herbert said.

On Pioneer Day Friday, Herbert suggested people look to the pioneers themselves for inspiration.

“We can learn lessons from our pioneers. They faced their own challenges. They battled fatigue, illness looking for opportunities to worship and be free,” Herbert said.

He added that modern Utahns face the challenge of needing to come together against a common foe but not be distracted by what he said were “detractors of science.”

“I find some parallels today. We are all modern-day pioneers with our own unique challenges. We’re battling our own detractors that don’t believe the scientific evidence. We have fatigue,” Herbert said. “Instead of pointing fingers and placing blame, the pioneers came together. They found a spirit of shared responsibility. That’s what we need to do. It’s easy to say it’s someone else’s fault, or follow the example of our ancestors and work together for the common good.”

At Dixie Regional Medical Center, the number of people hospitalized for coronavirus is down to nine, and there hasn’t been a coronavirus-related death in Southern Utah since Saturday. While the overall seven-day average of new COVID-19 infections is up slightly, the number of new instances outside a backlog of cases not included in previous reports has been dropping since last week.

Chart shows the rise in cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from June 22 to July 22, 2020, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

“We can’t help but feel a little excited when we see that, but we need to still be cautious,” David Heaton, spokesperson for the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, said. 

State officials said the drop in new case rates statewide has been attributed specifically to Salt Lake County, which has seen its share of the cases in the state go from 52% to 48% since June 27. 

It hasn’t been lost by some health experts that June 27 was also the same day Salt Lake County enacted a mandatory mask ordinance. 

“We’re seeing some evidence of a plateau. It’s in part due to the large rate drop in Salt Lake,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn with the Utah Department of Health, said. “We need to continue to drive cases down lower, and we know how to do it: by wearing masks.”

Dunn wasn’t ready to give all the credit to mask-wearing by the public in Salt Lake County.

“There are tons of factors, so to pinpoint as the exact cause, but the timing was in there,” Dunn said. “There is a correlation.”

BYU study says masks are safe and effective

A new BYU study has attempted to provide answers as far as whether mask-wearing is truly effective at bringing the chance of getting the coronavirus down and whether there is anything unhealthy about wearing a mask – especially for children who are going to be expected to wear them much of the time when schools resume next month as part of a state order. 

Photo by Marina113, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

A four-person team of BYU scientists examined 115 scientific studies on the use of face coverings and the coronavirus and performed their own experiments. Their conclusion was that masks are 90% effective at stopping water droplets containing the virus from escaping into the air when a person exhales, talks, coughs or sneezes. They also concluded wearing masks are “highly safe” with only “minor and uncommon side effects” mainly for those with severe disabilities or under the age of 2.

“The science is unanimous,” Herbert said of wearing masks. “It is clear.” 

The governor was joined this week by a new ally in his drive to get people to wear masks: The president of the United States. 

In a tweet Tuesday, President Donald Trump called the act of mask-wearing “patriotic” and urged Americans to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. 

“I appreciate the administration in Washington D.C. joining me in advocating for masks,” Herbert said. “They have been a little slow, but they’re along with us now.” 

The BYU study also dismissed any possibility of carbon dioxide contamination by a mask wearer or any loss of oxygen but recommended that the general public stray away from N95 respirator masks, which are meant more for a medical environment.

Southern Utah changes

In Southern Utah, Springdale enacted its own mask mandate on July 3. Heaton said he did not have exact figures to pinpoint if a similar reduction in new cases has occurred there like that in Salt Lake County.

At this point, every community in southwest Utah remains in the highest range for new cases over the last 14 days.

Chart shows the rise in cases in Kane County from the coronavirus from June 22 to July 22, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

The Utah Department of Health was able to confirm promising news for long-term care facilities in the area as the outbreak at St. George Rehabilitation is considered over. However, there was a new outbreak reported over the weekend at The Retreat at Sunbrook Assisted Living on Dixie Drive in St. George along with continuing outbreaks at the Sterling Court and the Wentworth at the Meadows Memory Care Center in St. George. All three of the outbreaks have five or fewer cases.  

While much of Southern Utah has been on a downward trajectory as far as coronavirus infections, there is one area that has been seeing a substantial increase in cases of late. Kane County has seen its number of coronavirus cases more than double, from 21 to 43, since July 14.

Like the other rural areas of Southern Utah like Beaver and Garfield counties, Kane County has been at the green risk status since June 12.

“We can’t put our finger on anything specifically, but a combination of backlog cases as well as fewer restrictions because they’re in green,” Heaton said of the increasing coronavirus infections in Kane County. 

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of July 22, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 2,563 (57.9 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 2,007 (39.1 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 439 (6.1 per day, dropping)
  • Garfield County: 29 (0.4 per day, rising) 
  • Kane County: 43 (2.1 per day, rising)
  • Beaver County: 18 (0.7 per day, rising) 
  • Cases not identified by county: 27

Deaths: 21 (0.3 per day, dropping)

  • Washington County: 17 
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2

Hospitalized: 9

Recovered: 1,579

Current Utah seven-day average (Goal of less than 500 by Aug. 1 ): 627 (rising)

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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