State plan for reopening schools changed so students and teachers exposed to COVID-19 must stay home

ST. GEORGE — The Utah Department of Health and Gov. Gary Herbert have made adjustments to the plan for reopening schools in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic, now recommending that students and teachers who have been exposed to someone with the virus for at least 15 minutes stay home for a 14-day quarantine.

Tonaquint Middle School on April 5, 2020 in St. George, Utah. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

This is a change from the plan for schools released last week, which said those exposed to the virus could still go to school in a “modified quarantine.”

During a press conference Thursday, the governor also announced the state will supply all teachers in the state with multiple masks and face shields. Outside of schools,

Herbert also made it easier for local cities and counties to impose a mandatory mask order while setting a new challenge to get the state average of daily new cases below 400 by Sept. 1.

“We are very eager to have schools open up. Education is a key for success in life. But we want to be back in a classroom that is safe and an environment safe for the teachers,” Herbert said. “Everyone has a right to know people are going back to a safe environment.”

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said officials got “a lot of contact” from people who said they weren’t comfortable with the idea of children and teachers exposed to the virus going back to the classroom.

Graphic showing guidelines for when students and teachers get the coronavirus during the upcoming school year, in the Utah Department of Health’s COVID-19 School Manual update on Aug. 5, 2020. Click to enlarge. | Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News

“We recommend anytime someone has close contact with someone with COVID-19 for 15 minutes, they should spend the entire 14-day period at home,” Dunn said, adding there are still many uncertainties about having in-person instruction during the pandemic and the guidelines are fluid. “Everything we’re trying to do is balanced, getting kids to school safely while stemming the spread of COVID-19. We’ll learn more. There’s so much we don’t know. We will certainly watch it closely.”

Herbert made it clear that the guidelines in the updated COVID-19 School Manual are just guidelines, and each school district is free to determine it’s own plan, including still allowing those exposed to the virus to attend classes, keeping all instruction online or even staying closed. 

“I have not ordered our schools to be open. That’s a local responsibility. I expect them to, but that is a local decision,” Herbert said. “We’re not requiring any school to open in a certain way.”

One thing not negotiable or recommended is the governor’s mandate that every person inside the school building – including teachers, students, staff and visitors – must wear a mask. 

“We’ve made it as a mandate people have to wear masks,” Herbert said. “Students have to wear masks.”

Teachers getting free masks, face shields from state

To help teachers, Herbert announced that the state has procured the purchase of more than 250,000 KN95 face masks and 100,000 clear face shields to be distributed to all 41 school districts in the state. 

The result, Herbert said, is every teacher and faculty member in Utah should be getting five KN95 masks and two clear face shields. The timeline for districts and, in turn, teachers receiving this personal protective equipment, was not disclosed. 

“We appreciate what teachers are doing,” Herbert said, denying some reports that he had been angered by a call by the Utah Education Association representing teachers asking for a delay in reopening schools and not getting enough teacher input. He said he met again with teacher representatives Wednesday and is working with their recommendations for reopening schools. “Teachers are the foundation for what society becomes.”

File photo of a KN95 mask for protection against COVID-19. | Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The KN95 masks are similar to N95 masks in that they are made with synthetic fibers designed to filter particulates out of the air. The main difference is they adhere to standards from China, rather than those of the U.S. Federal Drug Administration. They usually also use a string, rather than an elastic band, to loop around the ears.

The FDA issued an emergency order in April to allow the KN95 masks to be sold and distributed in the U.S. However, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that there was concern many of the masks are subpar with no quality checks.

On May 7, the FDA said some of the previously approved masks were not effective and removed from being authorized. The FDA has a list of currently approved and unauthorized KN95 masks on its website.

St. George News asked the governor’s office which manufacturer is supplying the KN95 masks in Utah and was told by a spokesperson for the governor that they didn’t have a list of the vendors of the masks, but they were purchased in April. The spokesperson said at the time they were purchased in April, they were FDA certified.

The face shields are primarily from DPS Skis, an FDA authorized company based in Salt Lake City.

Well-known scientist and media personality Bill Nye recently addressed the effectiveness of KN95 and other masks in a video posted on the social media site TikTok with a simple test to determine if a mask is effective. The homemade test involved a match or candle and trying to blow it out with the mask on. If the flame stays, that mask is effective. In another video, Nye recommended trying the test with KN95 masks – or any other mask, including homemade – to determine if they truly work.  

Governor makes local mask mandates easier

While Utah has not had a statewide mandate to wear face coverings like 33 other states, some localities in the state, including the city of Springdale, have enacted local mandates. And on Thursday, Herbert made it easy for cities and counties to do so. 

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Aug. 6, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

Up until now, cities or counties seeking to require masks be worn by residents in public places had to go through a process where it was submitted to the governor for his approval. As of Thursday, the process has changed so that a city or county government can just enact a mandate and would need to only notify the governor that they did. 

“All you need to do is notify us. I’m a local control person. I’m a local government person,” Herbert said. “Not only our local government officials but our local health departments.”

However, Herbert said he has not ruled out a statewide mask mandate.

“If we see spiking that takes place, a move in the other direction, we still might consider state mandates,” he said. “We have a lot of talk about liberty. But liberty needs to be coupled with individual responsibility.” 

Herbert added that he continues to be dismayed by what he said are people spreading false information about wearing masks and the pandemic in general. 

“We’re all distracted by the shrill voices. People say we should be wide open, others say COVID-19 is a hoax,” Herbert said. “Those extremes are what we should not listen to. I’m concerned about having the appropriate voices.”

One example Herbert cited as a falsity are rumors that the state’s reports of positive COVID-19 tests are false, including some saying that they have gotten a positive test result “even when they didn’t take a test.”

“That is absolutely false. No one is jimmying any numbers. The numbers are the numbers,” Herbert said. “Absolutely, patently false.”

Governor issues new challenge

A week ago, the state’s residents satisfied the governor’s challenge to average less than 500 new coronavirus cases a day by Aug. 1. The governor had said if that challenge was not reached, he might consider a statewide mask mandate.

Chart shows the rise in deaths and hospitalizations in Southern Utah from the coronavirus since May 1 as of August 6, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. Click to enlarge. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News

Thursday, Herbert issued a new challenge to get that daily average below 400 cases a day by Sept. 1.

While he didn’t give the same conditions that not reaching this challenge would cause a mask mandate or a higher color risk level, he said a spike back up might still result in stricter government action. 

“One of the tools in the toolbox is an aggressive approach by the state government,” Herbert said. “I hope we don’t have to do that.”

The Utah Department of Health said the current average has stayed steady at 449. Meanwhile, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department’s numbers indicate the number of cases per day have been edging higher this week – especially in Washington and Iron counties. 

Beyond new cases, hospitalizations have been edging higher statewide and locally as officials at Dixie Regional Medical Center said as of Thursday, the intensive care unit is two-thirds full. 

Last week also saw the most coronavirus deaths statewide in a week since the pandemic began. That has not been the case in Southern Utah, though Kane County had its first coronavirus-related death Wednesday. 

Nevertheless, there are signs the state is on the right track toward getting control of the pandemic. 

Signs of progress, tent at DRMC coming down

Testing is down statewide, and Dunn said that had more to do with less demand for tests than a shortage of tests.

“We definitely are cautiously optimistic because of the reduction in testing demand,” Dunn said. “It truly is a demand issue.”

To help with quicker results and more availability of tests, Utah has joined a pact with seven other states – Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina and Ohio – to independently acquire more than 500,000 rapid antigen tests outside the federal government. State officials have previously said Utah has been slow to receive testing supplies from the federal government. 

The BLU-MED tent at DRMC expands their emergency room capacity and capabilities, St. George, Utah, March 14, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Another sign of progress will come in front of DRMC this Saturday: One of the two temporary BLU-MED tents is coming down. 

While the hospital has seen an increase in COVID-19 patients this week, Medical Director Dr. Patrick Carroll said the hospital has determined it will need only one of the tents that went up in March

“Over the past few months, we have learned much about the processes for receiving patients with respiratory symptoms,” Carroll said. “If we do have a surge, we now believe we will be able to receive and separate these patients well within the building. We no longer see a need for the tent. It has served a useful purpose – as an emergency back-up until we learned more about caring for COVID-19 patients.”

Neither tent has actually been used, and Carroll previously said they would only be used as an absolute last resort – something that almost happened in early July when the hospital came close to reaching capacity. 

And the other tent will remain.

“We want to be very clear that this does not mean we believe the worst of COVID-19 is over,” Carroll said. “The potential for surge remains a serious risk … especially if people start thinking the lower positive case counts we are currently seeing mean they can become more casual about close contact.”

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 August 5, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 3,133 (39.7 new infections per day in seven days, rising)

  • Washington County: 2,461 (30.4 per day, rising)
  • Iron County: 550 (7.1 per day, rising)
  • Kane County: 60 (0.9 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 49 (0.7 per day, falling) 
  • Beaver County: 28 (0.5 per day, falling) 

Deaths: 25 (0.1 per day, falling)

  • Washington County: 20
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 15 (rising)

Recovered: 2,461

Current Utah seven-day average (Goal of less than 500 by Aug. 1 ): 449 (falling)

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

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