Too many Utah leaders would rather send kids to the hospital than make them wear masks, Robert Gehrke says

Banning mask requirements and jamming kids into classrooms while cases of the delta variant rise is a ‘recipe for disaster’

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Folded up bleachers at the old Provo High School gym are covered in notes accumulated since April by people giving their reasons for getting the COVID-19 vaccine as health care representatives administer the vaccine nearby on Wednesday, July 28, 2021.

In the matter of a few weeks, parents across the state will strap a backpack on their youngsters, kiss their rosy little cheeks and send them off to face the new school year and, with it, the deadliest virus of our lifetime.

Good luck, kids!

If it feels like deja vu, that’s because we were here last year at this time, struggling to find some way to protect students and give them the best educational opportunities.

What’s different now is that we find ourselves in a far, far more perilous spot than entering last school year.

Last July and August, cases were low — less than half where they are now — and falling. Fewer than 200 people were hospitalized and roughly 80 were in intensive care. Now we’re double both figures, straining a system depleted by last winter’s crushing surge, prompting hospital officials to sound alarms last week that they are nearing a breaking point.

Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease expert for Intermountain Healthcare, says we’re staring at a “recipe for disaster.”

“We have to have masking of individuals in schools, and we really need a mask mandate and a universal mask mandate for children in school in particular, that’s an indoor gathering,” Vento said. “It’s really critical that everyone take personal responsibility.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

We can blame this on the delta variant and those Utahns who stubbornly refuse vaccines.

It is true that kids, through the course of the pandemic, are less susceptible to getting COVID and getting seriously ill. Kids under the age of 14 account for just 2% of hospitalizations, and there has been just one death in that demographic. There are also potential complications, including MIS-C, an inflammatory disease related to COVID that has led to death in Utah children, and other long-term effects.

At the same time, emerging data indicates that our delta-fueled surge is hitting children harder than in the past.

As I mentioned, overall cases in Utah are double what they were last year. But for school-aged kids, those 5 to 14, they are 3 1/2 times higher.

In Salt Lake County, the entire pandemic had seen just 51 hospitalizations of children heading into July, but had seven in that month alone, matching the highest month since the pandemic began, Dr. Angela Dunn, director of the county health department, reported. That indicates the delta variant is causing more severe illness in children, Dunn said.

State models forecast that in the first 60 days of the school year, as many as 30 children under 12 could end up in the hospital — one every other day — in Salt Lake County alone.

Doctors in Arkansas, Florida and Louisiana are reporting seeing more hospitalized children, attributable to the delta variant.

And kids bring the virus home to unvaccinated parents.

The New York Times last week featured the ordeal of Mindy Greene, whose kid got COVID at a church camp (along with eight other kids) and brought it home to the family. Her husband, Russ, is now battling for his life in an ICU in Provo.

None of this addresses older kids, those who are high school age, who are just as likely as adults to contract and spread the disease and — based on data collected by the University of Utah’s HEROES Project — are at 60% higher risk COVID if they are in school than if they are doing remote schooling.

While those over age 12 and up are eligible to be vaccinated, nearly two-thirds of the age group statewide have not had both shots and now will be packed indoors.

So with surging cases, a monster variant and in-person school, what can be done to avoid endangering kids and fueling another spike?

The simplest thing is for those who can to get vaccinated.

Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor and researcher at Brown University, recently pointed out that the rate of infection among those under age 10 was about 12 times higher in Florida and 10 times higher in Louisiana than it was in Massachusetts. The difference, he said, is Massachusetts has a higher vaccination rate. Kids are less likely to come in contact with coronavirus if a lot of adults aren’t spreading it.

Then there’s masking. The Republican Legislature has forbidden schools from requiring students to wear masks (as well as requiring or inquiring about a student’s vaccination status) so the Utah Department of Health can only recommend students wear masks. Counties can require them — including in schools — if the local council or commission agrees with the order. But we are in a climate where if the topic is even hinted at, people come unglued.

Recently about 100 anti-maskers turned out for a Salt Lake County Council meeting last week because of a rumor that the council MIGHT be discussing a mandate (which they were not) and they ran through all the greatest hits: Masks don’t work, vaccines don’t work, hydroxychloroquine DOES work, and the ominous warning that “the Mark of The Beast is coming.”

Then there was the guy who said the only proof you need that masks don’t work is the smell that escapes from one’s pants when one “toots,” indicating he might be wearing his mask wrong or doesn’t grasp the relative size difference between viral aerosols and his “toot.”

To be clear: I believe these parents care about their children and their children’s health as much as anyone. But it’s frustrating that they are so misinformed and more frustrating that there’s no way to reach them, so long as they mistrust anyone or anything that doesn’t reinforce their beliefs.

And it’s frustrating that Republican council members are caving to the pressure, seemingly intent on rejecting mask requirements, leaving parents and kids to fend for themselves.

Yes, students can voluntarily wear masks, and ideally everyone will. But realistically that’s unlikely, and mask usage will almost certainly be lower in the parts of the state that have the highest infection rates and the lowest vaccination rates.

Gov. Spencer Cox has promised to provide an N95 or KN95 mask to every student who wants one, a good move, but will mean buying a lot of the disposable masks. The Health Department said details are being worked out.

The rest of the health department’s recommendations for schools are holdovers from last year and are reasonable (although the quarantine guidelines probably need to be revisited in light of the delta variant). When they’re all implemented, including masks, The HEROES Project reported, schools can reduce risk to 1%.

If we want to keep children in school, healthy and learning, requiring masks needs to be part of the solution, at least until we have a better understanding of the variants. Instead, politicians have caved to the noisy, organized and misinformed, intentionally removing one of the best tools we have in this fight and leaving parents to fend for themselves and our kids to be test subjects for the delta variant.