With some trepidation, Dr. Marc Harrison took off his N95 face mask in a room of state officials, health experts and reporters.
Harrison — the president and CEO of Utah’s largest hospital system, Intermountain Healthcare — told reporters at Gov. Spencer Cox’s monthly COVID-19 briefing Tuesday about his medical history: He has multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer, which is in remission after a bone marrow transplant and an experimental CAR T-cell therapy, leaving him immunocompromised.
“I would normally avoid a group like this,” Harrison told reporters. “I hope that all of you who aren’t wearing masks aren’t carrying the delta variant — because if you are, you could kill me. This is serious stuff.”
Harrison urged all Utahns to wear a mask in public settings — as well as to get vaccinated, stop the spread of misinformation, and “put your virtual arms around” health care workers.
The message even got to Cox, who said, “It’s been well-documented how much I hate masks” — even planning to burn his mask for the Fourth of July.
“As much as I dislike it, I’m going to try to wear a mask more often — especially when I’m around unvaccinated people and immunocompromised people,” Cox said. “I’m going to try a little bit harder, so that I can protect people like Dr. Harrison and others who are immunocompromised or struggling, and even those who have chosen to not get the vaccine.”
Cox acknowledged he won’t be a perfect role model for mask-wearing. “There will be times when I don’t have a mask on,” he said, “and someone will take a picture of me, and some of you will lose your minds. And that’s OK.”
Later in Tuesday’s briefing, Cox seemed to show exasperation that masks have become a political flashpoint.
“The mask thing is so, so, so blown out of proportion,” Cox said. “Masks are not as effective as most of the pro-mask crowd is arguing. They are a tool, and they have some impact. … We know it does something. Probably not nearly as much as people think.”
Medical studies disagree with Cox’s assessment and have shown the effectiveness of mass mask-wearing at stopping the spread of COVID-19 — though mandating mask use has been found to be less effective.
Cox noted that both Grand County and Salt Lake City have implemented mask mandates in their schools, which may become real-world test cases for how much masks work to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“At the same time, masks are not the evil that others have portrayed them to be,” Cox said. “For most people, masks are an inconvenience at worst.”
Cox added that “the anti-maskers and the extreme maskers all just need to get over themselves a little bit, and try to have a little bit of common sense here. And, unfortunately, that’s what’s missing from all this discussion — a little bit of common sense, a little bit of nuance, a little bit of grace, a little bit of understanding.”
On its Twitter account, the Utah Democratic Party urged people call Cox’s office to “ask him what the difference between an ‘extreme masker’ and a ‘person concerned about a deadly pandemic’ is.”
Harrison said he appeared at the briefing Tuesday to highlight the efforts of health care workers “who are fighting the valiant fight in the face of this pandemic.”
At Intermountain’s referral hospitals — “the big ones,” Harrison said, that handle the heaviest traffic — the intensive care units are at 103% capacity. Across the entire Intermountain system, he said, ICU capacity is at 105%.
Normally, Harrison said, ICUs are operating at around 75% capacity — treating people suffering from emergencies like strokes, heart attacks and car crashes. COVID-19, Harrison said, “is exacerbating things,” and accounts for between 30% and 40% of the patients filling ICU beds.
Last weekend, he said, Intermountain’s ICU teams in Utah saw five patients die from COVID-19, “and my guess is, based on statistics, that every single one of those was a preventable death.” ICU doctors and nurses “kind of sign up for death and destruction,” he said, “but most of that is not preventable.”
Harrison said, “when you lose a patient, it takes a little bit out of your emotional bank account. A little bit of capital is withdrawn. We usually get it replenished by big saves that we make, helping families through extraordinary circumstances and helping patients survive. Right now, the balance is out of kilter. The withdrawals are far exceeding the deposits.”