What COVID-19 changes will Utahns keep? Experts weigh in on masks, Zoom calls and lessons learned

A look at what we will and what we should continue after the virus is tamed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A split image of the state Capitol rotunda, showing a Feb. 20, 2020 rally by educators on the left and a woman sanitizing a table on Mar. 3, 2021.

Like many people, Gov. Spencer Cox has had it with face masks.

“I’m not going to be wearing this on the Fourth of July,” Cox said recently, waving a mask in a teleconference with reporters. “We’re going to put these in the fireworks and blow them up, or burn them, or something.”

Cox was sharing his optimism that all adult Utahns will have access to a COVID-19 vaccine by summer. It was also a relatable reaction to everything Utahns have endured in the last year — a desire to put the pandemic, and the pain that came with it, behind us.

As experts look at the last 12 months — the lives lost, the disruption of normal life, the shuttered businesses, the empty public spaces, working and learning from home — they see some things worth keeping.

Face masks are at the top of the list.

Hang onto your masks

“It’s good for the entire population if we all wear masks in the wintertime,” said Dr. Jose Rodriguez, associate director of the University of Utah’s Redwood Health Center. “Plus, it keeps my face warm.”

Beyond the pandemic, masks will remain “an important transmission prevention tool,” agreed Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, one that’s “of more benefit to those around the wearer than as a protective benefit to the wearer.”

Doctors have noted that far fewer people got the flu this season, for example, than in other years.

“There was no flu because we were wearing masks,” Rodriguez said. “We had less kids getting sick. We had less people coming in [to our clinic]. It was bad for business, but great for patients.”

In late February, Dr. Andrew Pavia, a pediatric disease specialist at both University of Utah Hospital and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital, reported that both pediatric flu and RSV — two common and occasionally deadly virus-borne diseases — were practically nonexistent this season.

One place mask-wearing should continue after the pandemic, Rodriguez said, is in professional kitchens.

“We should be asking ourselves why in the world we went to restaurants [before the pandemic] when people weren’t wearing masks when they made our food,” he said.

Wash your hands, keep some distance

Like many medical experts, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, sees the connection between the drop in flu and RSV cases and the public health measures put in place to battle COVID-19.

“I do hope that every time we come into the respiratory virus season, which is late fall through winter, that we all remember these precautions,” Dunn told The Salt Lake Tribune.

After the pandemic, Webb said, “one thing we’re not going to want to carry over is maintaining our distance from those human relationships that are very important: Our loved ones, close acquaintances, family members.”

On the other hand, Webb added, “we’re much more aware of unnecessary contact with people we don’t know. … We’ll very likely continue to ask ourselves for a long time after the pandemic, ‘Do I really need to be in this public space packed with people?’”

Dr. Mark Briesacher, Intermountain’s chief physician executive, said in a recent Facebook Live briefing that one action people should stick with after the pandemic is one of the oldest. “I’ll go back to what our grandmothers told us, which is: Wash your hands,” Briesacher said.

With proper hand-washing, Dunn said she’s not too concerned about the potential return of a custom mostly abandoned during the pandemic: Shaking hands.

“What’s more important is you just wash your hands regularly, and don’t touch your face,” Dunn said.

“Handshakes are a cultural norm,” Webb said. “It’ll be very interesting to see how business behavior changes, post-pandemic.”

The pros and cons of Zoom

Teleconferencing, using apps such as Zoom, has quickly become a common part of of business and education.

The governor is a fan. “I definitely support more working from home for reasons not related to the pandemic, i.e. rural jobs, cleaner air, more family time and less commuting,” Cox said in an email, in response to questions from The Tribune.

Teleconferencing came with a steep learning curve, said Richard E. West, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of people were just not comfortable with video calling at all,” West said. “They didn’t think work could be done that way at all. And what we’ve learned is that work can be done this way and sometimes it can be better.”

The upside, West said, is the convenience, “because you save time on the commute, you save time on a lot of things.”

The downside is “Zoom fatigue,” the wall that many people are hitting after a year of channeling human contact through squares on a screen. “There are real physiological difficulties and emotional difficulties being in Zoom all day long,” West said. “Particularly for adolescents and children, they really struggle with it.”

The convenience and ubiquity of Zoom also opens employees up to constant access by their coworkers and bosses.

“We’re not very good at telling people, ‘I’m not in the office today,’” West said. “That’s the American psyche. We feel we always need to be available. There is that challenge that Zoom will make us susceptible to that … temptation to always be available, when it’s probably better if we weren’t always available.”

Sick? Stay home

Another lesson of working from home, Webb said, is “there really isn’t a reason to be at work or at school when you’re sick.”

That idea flies in the face of American workplace culture, Webb said, which “has traditionally been that if you’re too sick to be productive, that’s when you stay home. [Otherwise,] we often power through, despite having some symptoms.”

Staying home when sick, Dunn said, is “clearly benefiting the prevention of the spread of respiratory viruses, but it will also keep [the] entire workforce healthy.”

Dunn said she hopes employers are learning that lesson during the pandemic, and will enact sick leave policies that encourage employees to stay home when necessary.

Find a better balance of home and office relationships

For some, West said, COVID-19 has prompted changes in the family dynamic.

“The pandemic forced us, in many ways, to retreat back into our homes a little bit,” West said. “[My children] have half days at school, and they come home at 1 o’clock in the afternoon. And I’m working from home, and I get to see them, where normally I wouldn’t see them at all until the evening.”

Some families have become “a little less scheduled, a little less busy” during the pandemic, West said. “You can’t go to the gym for your exercise classes, and you can’t do your team sports, things like that. So people are doing things at home more with each other. That can be a positive thing to keep.”

Work friends can also have an emotional pull, West said.

“There are professional interactions and relationships that are really important, not only for our mental health but also for the work we do,” he said. “What people are realizing is that people need to have both of those communities. After the pandemic, we’re going to need to find a way to balance those a little bit better.”

West said that for employees, and likely for college students, “we’re going to see something in the middle, where people are going to be working two or three days in the office, two or three days at home.”

Such a schedule may sound efficient, but “on the day-to-day decisions, it’s going to be tempting: Do I have to go into the office for this meeting? Do I have to go in for this class?” West said. “Those are going to be the temptations where we say, ‘I want to stay home.’ But if we do that too much, then we’re back to the way we’re feeling now, which is isolated, disconnected, Zoom-fatigued.”

Webb, at Intermountain, said, “there will be, to some degree, a regression to the mean, where we start finding economic balance between business travel and virtual communications — in which settings it’s more cost-effective, and in which settings it’s less effective.”

A higher awareness of racial and income disparities

Another lesson from the last year is that the pandemic didn’t strike all Utahns equally.

COVID-19 in Utah hit Latino and Pacific Islander populations harder than other ethnic groups. As of Tuesday, according to the Utah Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, 20.7% of the cases in Utah have been in the Latino community, which makes up 14.2% of Utah’s total population; Pacific Islanders, who are 1.6% of Utah’s population, have had 2.4% of the state’s COVID-19 cases.

Rodriguez, from the Redwood Health Center, said, “our DNA — be it Black, white, Latinx, whatever — is not different enough to explain the differences in these [medical] outcomes. In the future, we have to insist in equality in these outcomes.”

“Racism acts in a way that we are not always conscious of,” said Rodriguez, who is also associate vice president for health equity, diversity and inclusion at University of Utah Health.

“Because of that, we have racism causing problems in the COVID arena with no actual racists involved,” he said. “There’s no cross-burning bigots around here. What there is, is how systemic racism has made it so Black and brown people living in poor areas that don’t have access to health care.”

Utah’s majority white populace should care about what happens to their neighbors not just for altruistic reasons, Rodriguez said, but self-interest.

“When things go bad in the underrepresented community, it’s just the warning for what’s going to happen in the greater community,” he said. “Had we acted much earlier on getting COVID under control in the underrepresented community, we would have a very different picture of what’s going on today.”

Webb added, “I hope the disparities we’ve seen in [medical] outcomes and transmission rates will open our eyes, as a community and as policymakers, to the issue around equity — and not just in health care access, but in other parts of society as well.”

Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said she hopes the pandemic can be “a catalyst to make those hard decisions that create social change and allow us to take care of all of our communities. …

“Certainly the virus doesn’t care what your income level is, or what community you live in,” Dunn said. “It’s our policies and our society that has had systemic racism and disparities for centuries. The pandemic just shines a light on that.”

Making that change, she said, “is going to take a lot of political will.”

Science meets politics

A final lesson from the pandemic is seeing what happens when science and politics mix.

“If the pandemic teaches us anything, it’s that scientific evidence is an evolving forum, and [relying on data] that quickly becomes obsolete is poor policy,” Webb said.

He cites the early messaging about wearing masks. In March 2020, federal experts — even the venerated Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official — were telling people that cloth masks were no help in stopping the virus.

As scientists learned more about the coronavirus, their message on masks changed. However, some politicians — particularly President Donald Trump — stuck to the old message, and many of his supporters turned shunning the mask into a symbol of political loyalty.

“A lot of the barriers to mask-wearing have been political,” Webb said, “and a lot has been based on a misunderstanding of why policies have changed over the pandemic.”

“The idea that masking was some sort of political statement is a miscarriage of justice, a miscarriage of science and a miscarriage of information,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t make [science and health care] into the political football that they made it into this year.”

Dunn said one positive element from the pandemic was “the creation of relationships across sectors, across community organizations, all to fight a common goal.”

She hopes that those groups, “once they shift from specifically COVID, will shift to addressing the more upstream problems, such as education and income equality.”