Salt Lake County extends COVID-19 mask mandate through 2020, as state reports 8 new deaths

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

Keep wearing a mask to fight COVID-19, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson is telling residents, moving to extend the county’s face-coverings mandate to the end of the year.

“We’re six months into this emergency, and we recognize that until we have a vaccine, we need to continue to battle COVID-19,” Wilson said in a video message posted to the county’s Twitter account.

The extension was announced Wednesday, as the Utah Department of Health announced that eight more Utahns had died from COVID-19 and another 364 people in the state tested positive for the virus.

Half of those who died were residents of long-term care facilities — where the number of outbreaks is dropping. There were 21 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities on the department’s list of outbreaks Wednesday. There were 32 centers on the list Aug. 7.

The eight new deaths bring the state’s overall death toll to 377 people. UDOH identified the four Utahns who had been residents of long-term care facilities as a Cache County man between the ages of 45 and 64; two Salt Lake County men, each between 65 and 84; and a Utah County woman older than 85.

The other four Utahns all died in hospitals. They were identified as a a Weber County man between 45 and 64, and three people between 65 and 84 — a Utah County man, and two women from Weber and San Juan counties.

The state’s rolling seven-day average for new cases — the metric public health officials use to gauge trends — is at 346 cases per day. The average for the seven days before that was 394 cases per day.

Gary Edwards, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, said the recent decline in new coronavirus infections shows the mask mandate is working.

When Gov. Gary Herbert approved Salt Lake County’s mask mandate on June 25, the county’s rolling seven-day average of cases was at 240 cases per day. The average peaked at 301 cases per day on July 13, but it has been declining since — down to an average of 152.6 cases per day Wednesday.

“We know that it’s working,” Wilson said in her video message. “We’ve seen cases fall.” But, Wilson warned, officials are concerned about a possible increase in cases during the Labor Day weekend and the reopening of schools.

Salt Lake County is the state’s most populous, with about a third of Utah’s total population. However, it’s had 46.5% of the state’s cases of COVID-19, and 57.6% of Utah’s deaths from the virus.

Public health officials have attributed that disparity to several factors, including the density of the county’s population, the number of long-term care facilities, and the concentrations of ethnic populations that have been hit disproportionately by the disease.

(Photo by Nate Carlisle | Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Gary Edwards talks outside the county government center on Aug. 19, 2020, about the decision to extend the county's mask mandate through the remainder of the year.

Edwards’ department conducted surveys in Utah communities with and without mask mandates. Edwards said his staff found store customers wore masks more often and were more likely to wear them correctly in places where the municipality required them.

“I’m really encouraged with what we have seen,” Edwards told reporters Wednesday outside the county government center. “I’m nervous about school starting. If the children adhere [to mask requirements], we will be successful.”

Edwards said Salt Lake County could end the mask mandate sooner if it’s determined the requirement is no longer effective in reducing the spread of coronavirus.

Wilson, in her video message, said she and Edwards extended the mask order Wednesday — and that the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday approved extending the county’s emergency order, which allows the county to take advantage of federal funding streams.

Dave Alvord, former mayor of South Jordan and a Republican candidate for the Salt Lake County Council, accused Wilson of overreach.

“Emergency powers should only be granted when there is no time to meet and deliberate as a legislative body,” Alvord wrote in a tweet Wednesday. He added that the coronavirus, though serious, is “slow enough moving that elected officials can actually meet and make decisions of how to deal with it.”

In UDOH’s daily report, the agency said 139 people are now in Utah hospitals with COVID-19, including 28 who entered the hospital Tuesday.

Another 3,846 tests for the virus were processed in the last 24 hours, UDOH reported. The rolling seven-day rate of positive test results is at 8.9%.

On Wednesday, University of Utah Health announced it would be taking appointments for people wanting to get COVID-19 tests at the hospital chain’s four drive-thru centers.

“This way just gives more power to the patient, to pick where they want to go and when they want to go,” said Michael Bronson, senior director for U. of U. Health’s community clinics.

The appointment system went into effect Tuesday at U. of U. Health’s four clinics, in Sugar House, on Redwood Road, in South Jordan and in Farmington. It is not in place at Intermountain Park City Hospital, a testing site the U. operates jointly with Intermountain Healthcare.

The process is available for anyone with symptoms of COVID-19. Making an appointment, Bronson said, allows patients to fill out their paperwork before arriving, and speed up the process. The clinics will continue to take walk-in and drive-up patients, he said.

The U.‘s clinics have delivered around 1,000 tests a day in the last week or so, Bronson said, down from the peak of 1,800 per day earlier this summer.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 47,521 Utahns have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 610,362 people have been tested for the virus. There have been 2,832 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19.