Utah hospitals push for mask order despite governor’s claim it’s not needed

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert wears a mask during a news conference on April 15, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Executives from several Utah hospital groups said on Friday, July 10, 2020, that Herbert's "challenge" to Utahns to wear face masks is insufficient, and a mandatory statewide order to wear masks is needed to stem the state's rise in COVID-19 cases.

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Utah’s major hospital systems are pushing back against Gov. Gary Herbert’s announcement that he will not be mandating masks, outside of Utah schools and state government buildings.

“We feel strongly that this ... requirement and protection is something that everyone who lives in Utah and across the Mountain West deserves,” Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive at Intermountain Healthcare, said at a news conference Friday.

“It feels as though we’re headed for a disaster,” agreed Dr. Arlen Jarrett, chief medical officer for Steward Health. “It’s very clear that if we stay on this same path, we’re going to maximize our hospitals’ capacity very soon.”

On Thursday, Herbert announced face coverings would be required at all public schools during the coming school year but said he would not require masks in public statewide because he hoped Utahns would voluntarily wear them.

For months, Herbert, state health officials and health care providers have urged residents to use face coverings, but the number of new cases continues to climb, with record increases reported nearly every week since late May. For the week leading up to Thursday, Utah was reporting on average 585 new cases a day. It reported a record-breaking 867 new cases on Friday.

“We were hopeful that people would receive that message and act on it, and take personal responsibility,” Jarrett said. “Unfortunately ... that hasn’t happened on our own accord and on our own free will.”

Doctors from Intermountain, Steward, University of Utah Health and MountainStar Health said they had been bracing for state officials to announce an extremely high number of new cases on Friday, based on their own hospitals’ test results Thursday.

“The infection rate ... is not sustainable for our hospital systems within the next few weeks,” said Dr. Thomas Miller, chief medical officer for University of Utah Hospital. “It will be an issue where we’re overrun.”

Herbert said instead of requiring masks, he was “challenging” Utahns to wear them and practice more diligent social distancing to reach an average daily case increase of less than 500 by Aug. 1. That’s more than double the limit of new cases state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn called for in a memo in late June.

In the memo, she wrote that Utah would need to reach fewer than 200 new cases per day by July 1 to avoid widespread preventable illness and death due to the coronavirus.

Utah’s seven-day average for daily new cases has been above 500 since June 24, according to data provided by the Utah Department of Health. If Utah hasn’t reached that threshold by Aug. 1, Herbert said he would consider tougher restrictions.

But that will be too late, the doctors warned.

“We can’t wait until August to see what happens,” Jarrett said. “I don’t think at this point we can avoid maximizing our hospitals’ capacity. I think it’s probably too late.”

But, Jarrett said, it’s not too late to limit a potential crisis.

“Every day that we delay,” Miller agreed, " ... takes us one day further away from our goals and raises the risk that we will have an inability to manage our patients.”

Herbert approved requests from Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties and the town of Springdale, outside Zion National Park, to establish orders for mandatory use of face coverings.

That’s not good enough, Briesacher said. “Having a patchwork approach can and will lead to confusion.”

Utahns’ failure to mask is also thwarting the whole community’s recovery — hurting even the factions that have balked at coronavirus restrictions, explained Dr. Michael Baumann, chief medical officer for HCA MountainStar Health.

“We need to do this to protect people around us. It’s not so much about protecting ourselves,” Baumann said. “I realize in some ways this is a political issue, but without having a balance between our business environment and a healthy population, we [won’t] get through this.”