Unmasked Utah children are going to catch the Delta variant in school, infectious disease expert says

Utah now has a law prohibiting schools from mandating masks.

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File) In this Aug. 17, 2020, file photo, students walk into Liberty Elementary School during the first day of class in Murray.

When unvaccinated, unmasked Utah children return to school in a few weeks, they will transmit the delta variant of COVID-19 to each other. It’s only a matter of time, according to an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Medical Center.

“We’ve got a very, very transmissible virus,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem. “You’re going to see this virus transmit in schools. And then those children are going to take the virus back to their homes and transmit it to susceptible parents and susceptible grandparents. That’s just a fact.”

Coronavirus vaccines have not been approved for anyone under the age of 12, so elementary schools across the state will be filled with unvaccinated children. And, according to the Utah Department of Health, only a third of Utahns between the ages of 12-18 have been fully vaccinated; just over 42% have received at least one dose.

Stenehjem recommends that kids wear masks in school, but that would be entirely voluntary. The state Legislature passed — and Gov. Spencer Cox signed — a bill that banned mask mandates in Utah.

[Read more: With mask requirements forbidden, how are Utah schools planning to cope with the coronavirus?]

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease physician at Intermountain Healthcare in Murray, Utah, speaks about things people need to know about coronavirus on Thursday, March 12, 2020.

Stenehjem pointed to the leaked report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that the delta variant appears to spread as easily as chicken pox, “which is an incredibly transmissible virus. ... I think we have to realize that this is a different virus than we were dealing with last fall or last winter.”

“We know that if you put 30 people into an enclosed room, that you’re going to get transmission.” And Stenehjem is “skeptical” that measures like spacing desks 3 feet apart, increasing air circulation, and focusing on hand washing will prevent the spread of the delta variant.

“We know that masking works,” he said. “And I would say if I had a school-age child … I’d make sure that they’re going back to school masked.”

Getting students to wear masks indoors during class limits transmission of the coronavirus, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at University of Utah Health.

“We know that we can have schools operate in person, safely, with masking,” Pavia said during a U. of U. Health Facebook Live session Friday. “We also know of other countries around the world, where masking wasn’t done, schools can have explosive outbreaks.”

Pavia cited data gathered for the Utah HERO Project, a wide-ranging study designed to gather information about COVID-19 transmission to inform Utah policymakers. “The bottom line of what we learned was that you can keep schools open safely — and we did that successfully in Utah — when you have universal masking in the schools, when you do your best to maintain decent distances between students,” Pavia said.

Also, Pavia said, “kids tolerate masks. They don’t like them — I don’t like wearing masks, you don’t like wearing masks — but kids really do well. And they don’t have a political agenda that masks are taking away their freedom.”

It’s not just schoolchildren who should wear masks, Stenehjem said. The Intermountain physician supports the latest CDC recommendation to wear masks indoors. Research shows fully vaccinated people can catch and transmit the delta variant without even knowing they have it.

Data also shows that the states with the lowest vaccination rates have the highest case counts, and Utah is currently No. 11 for the highest number of cases per 100,000 population. About 46% percent of all Utahns are fully vaccinated.

“This just comes down to the fact that vaccines work,” Stenehjem said. “Vaccines prevent cases, they prevent hospitalizations, they prevent deaths. This isn’t rocket science.”

And he pushed back against false reports that the vaccines have caused widespread deaths. “I haven’t seen or heard of a vaccine-related death within our system,” Stenhjem said. “I have seen hundreds of deaths due to COVID-19.”

He acknowledged there have been “rare complications from the vaccine.” And that some people have been admitted to the hospital because of those complications, treated and released. “But this perception that this vaccine causes death is not one that [we] have seen.”

“I hear people say, ‘Oh, these are new vaccines that haven’t been studied.’ I would push back on that and say — I can’t think of a vaccine that’s been more heavily scrutinized than this vaccine.”

Adverse effects from vaccines occur within two months after they’re administered, and there’s now “seven or eight months” of data from “millions upon millions of people have received these vaccines.”

The danger from not getting vaccinated is not just to the individual, it’s to the entire population. As the virus is transmitted to more and more people, “those are opportunities to develop mutations,” Stenehjem said. And those mutations could be more severe or even more easily transmitted — as we’ve seen with the delta variant in India and the Lambda variant in South America.

“It could also lead to vaccine escape, meaning that that vaccine is no longer effective against that variant,” he said. “And so what we can say is that the more transmission that we have in a community, the more likely we’re going to see a mutant come out of that that potentially has detrimental effects.”