With 622 more cases of COVID-19 in Utah, leaders call on Gov. Herbert to impose statewide mask order

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert speaking during the weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020.

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As Utah’s rate of new coronavirus cases continued to rise Monday, Gov. Gary Herbert said he would wait at least another day before enacting any new restrictions — an approach that had Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson fuming.

“Polite conversation and suggestion is not a possibility,” Wilson said Monday afternoon. “We need leaders that will act. The governor should have already imposed a mask mandate throughout the state.”

A prominent Republican lawmaker from Utah County also called on Herbert to announce a statewide mask order if county leaders don’t act.

"If we have county leaders that continue to abdicate their responsibilities, then I don’t really see any other option but to go ahead and do a statewide mandate,” said state Sen. Deidre Henderson, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, running with current Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. “The latest spike is maybe testament that we need to maybe do a little bit more as a government, unfortunately.”

Henderson said Utah County — she lives in Spanish Fork — “needs to have a mask mandate, for sure.”

Much of the recent jump in cases, Wilson noted, is coming from the reopening of schools and the traditional gatherings that come with fall. She placed some of the fault with parents.

“What we’re seeing more and more of, as we come together for school activities and after-school activities," Wilson said, “is that there’s a lack of discipline from parents.”

With 622 new coronavirus cases reported Monday by the Utah Department of Health, the state has averaged 847 new positive test results per day for the past week — far exceeding July’s top weeklong average of 671 new daily cases.

Herbert said last week that he would meet with other state officials Monday to determine what, if any, new restrictions might be undertaken in response to the recent surge in new cases. But his spokeswoman said he would announce no policy changes until Tuesday.

When asked what proposals the Republican governor was considering, spokeswoman Anna Lehnardt said: “Everything is on the table," repeating his description from last week.

‘More and more frustrated’

Wilson said she has had conversations about moving Salt Lake County back to the moderate or “orange” restriction level, which would again limit gatherings, businesses operations and team sports. The county is now at the yellow, or low, restriction level.

But those guidelines were created months ago, Wilson said. State leaders now have a better sense of how the virus spreads and Utahns' habits. “I don’t want to falsely state to the people of my county that a color change is the solution," Wilson said. “It is not.”

Despite Salt Lake County’s efforts to ramp up testing and to reach out to hard-hit areas, Wilson said, Utahns tend to frequently travel to other counties for work or to visit family. That’s why, she added, a state-led effort would be most effective.

“I am by the minute growing more and more frustrated, and by the minute doubling down on what we can do in Salt Lake County,” the Democratic mayor said. “However, we share boundaries with two counties, and we know one of those counties is literally on fire.”

Utah County on Monday again recorded the most per capita cases of any county in the state. It reported 227 positive tests, which was down from recent days.

Although the state had not updated its coronavirus “response scoreboard” for more than a week, it appears that some of the health measures have strayed further from the goals set in Herbert’s latest “accountability” plan. The goals include keeping weeklong averages to fewer than 400 new cases per day — a target Utah met in mid-August but surpassed again Sept. 3 as cases among young adults exploded.

But the state’s key metric under Herbert’s plan — a coronavirus death rate of less than 1% — stayed at 0.7% on Monday, and younger patients continued to drive new cases. Since late August, the weeklong rates of new cases among patients ages 15 to 24 have more than tripled, from 98 new cases per day to 336 new cases per day as of Monday. During the first week of September, the age group overtook 25- to 44-year-olds as Utah’s biggest contributor of new cases, despite comprising a far smaller portion of the state’s population.

Utah’s death toll from the coronavirus rose to 441 on Monday, with one fatality reported since Sunday: a Salt Lake County man, older than 85, who died in a hospital.

For the past seven days, Utah County has averaged more than 56 new cases a day per 100,000 residents, more than double the statewide average of 26. By comparison, Salt Lake County’s average per 100,000 residents was 27 new cases per day, and the Bear River Health District in northern Utah was at 21 per 100,000.

Brigham Young University, which has experienced the worst campus outbreak since fall term began, reported 927 cases as of Sunday, up 165 cases in three days.

In a statement Monday, Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee said he had been “in constant communication” with Utah County Health Department Executive Director Ralph Clegg, as well as fellow Commissioners Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie, and mayors of Utah County cities. Lee said “he hopes to have a resolution to address the latest uptick in COVID-19 cases as soon as possible.”

The county, which is at the “yellow” or “low” restriction level, had not updated local case numbers on its website since Friday. At that time, Provo, Mapleton, Lindon, Orem, Cedar Hills, Highland, Alpine and Saratoga Springs all had averaged more than 40 new daily cases per 100,000 residents for the previous week.

‘It’s not a cold'

Speaking in a Zoom interview with The Salt Lake Tribune for supporters of the paper’s Report for America positions, Henderson said she prefers “the local government approach" but would support state-imposed restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

Henderson — who represents Spanish Fork in the Legislature — announced in August that she was diagnosed with COVID-19, and told The Tribune on Monday that she just recently recovered, after spending three weeks on oxygen.

“I know that it’s not a cold. It’s not a flu. It’s very different from anything I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “I’ve been a little bit disappointed lately at the division that’s been happening and the rancor and just the polarization and the politicization of wearing a mask.

" ... Wearing a mask is not about the person wearing the mask," Henderson said. “It is about the person wearing the mask not potentially spreading their disease to someone else.”

Hospitalizations continued to rise Monday, with 144 Utah patients concurrently admitted, UDOH reported. On average, 131 patients have been receiving treatment in Utah hospitals each day for the past week — up from a week ago, but below the peak average of 211 patients hospitalized each day at the end of July.

In total, 3,520 patients have been hospitalized in Utah for COVID-19, up 26 from Sunday.

Utah’s intensive care units were 67.7% occupied as of Monday; the state’s goal is to keep the level below 85%.

The rate of tests with positive results was at 13.6% on Monday, the highest level recorded so far in Utah. State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has said a 3% positivity rate would indicate the virus is under control. Statewide, Utah’s rate of positive tests has been above 5% since May 25, according to UDOH data.

There were 3,886 new test results reported Monday, far below the weeklong average of 5,767 new tests per day. Testing demand had risen precipitously in the past week but generally remained below its peak in mid-July, when the state was reporting more than 7,000 new test results per day, on average.

The spread in schools

Since public schools began opening Aug. 13, there have been 66 outbreaks in schools, affecting 461 patients, with two new outbreaks and 41 new cases reported in the past day.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been 506 patients infected in 77 school outbreaks, with a median age of 16. Twelve of those patients have been hospitalized; none has died.

Wilson called on county residents to be better examples to their children about the importance of public health, but added, “I don’t for a second blame teachers or administrators of schools, and I certainly don’t blame parents, but we have to try harder.”

The virus is spreading particularly rapidly in the Canyons School District of southeast Salt Lake County, where cases jumped from 156 to 194 in two days, and three of the district’s six high schools have surpassed 15 cases in the past two weeks — the threshold at which the state recommends stopping in-person classes.

But only one of those schools has moved to online-only classes; Corner Canyon High School sent students home for two weeks starting Friday, when the district reported 70 active cases at the school — including a teacher who was hospitalized. The Salt Lake County Health Department scheduled a COVID-19 testing event Monday evening at Corner Canyon.

Brighton and Alta High School each reported 23 active cases, with Alta surpassing 15 active cases on Monday, according to county data.

Draper Park Middle School was at 13 active cases Friday, according to the district, but the count was down to 12 as of Monday, the district reported.

Meanwhile, Riverton High School in the Jordan School District also remained open Monday despite identifying at least 15 active cases, Salt Lake County reported. The school board last week voted to close the school for a two-day cleaning and then reopen, in opposition to the state’s recommendation to move to online-only classes.

In addition to BYU’s outbreak, the virus appeared to be spreading rapidly on some other campuses. Utah State University reported 289 fall cases as of Monday, up from 258 on Saturday. The University of Utah reported 324 cases as of Sunday, up from 258 five days earlier. Utah Valley University had not updated its case reports for a week.

Davis County’s cases are seeing an upward trend as well, although they have not reached peak July levels and have not experienced the mushrooming rate of infection seen in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

“Really, we have tried to stay out of the politics of it and to do what is pragmatic. And what is pragmatic is following the experts' epidemiological advice and data,” said Commissioner Lorene Miner Kamalu. “It’s been working for us.”

Asked why Davis County doesn’t implement a mask mandate similar to Salt Lake County, Kamalu said the daily case load remains low enough that the county doesn’t need one.

“We would cross that bridge when we came to it,” she said, adding, “we still see a lot of compliance with wearing of masks.”

Of 64,394 Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19, 51,660 are considered “recovered” — that is, they have survived for at least three weeks after being diagnosed.

Reporters Bethany Rodgers and Becky Jacobs contributed to this story.