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Now Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council own our child COVID rate, Robert Gehrke writes

How many families will suffer because politicians won’t challenge the foolish mob?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People fill the room as the Salt Lake County Council voted down Dr. Angela Dunn's mask ordinance for K-6 students, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.

The decision by the six Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council to revoke a public health order requiring masks for elementary school students wasn’t a surprise.

Council members had telegraphed for days they were inclined to fall in line with the frenzied anti-maskers.

With no other health district in the state taking the lead on requiring masks, it sets the stage for a school year unlike anything we’ve seen — with kids getting sick at an alarming rate before classes even start, and few real protections in place.

I thought I’d share some thoughts on how we got here and what it means.

‘Don’t bring facts to a faith fight’

That’s something a doctor told me recently when we discussed how to reach people who fight things like vaccines and masks. And the hard data we have available makes a compelling argument for masks.

Studies of Utah schools showed masks helped reduce infections and, as a result, keep kids in class.

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

The statewide trendline shows far more kids are contracting the virus now than at this time last year and the numbers keep getting worse. Last year there were fewer than 19 kids between 5 and 13 years of age testing positive each day. Now it’s nearly 93 — five times last year’s rate and climbing.

Hospitalization rates are increasing and are projected to continue to climb. Models by the Utah Department of Health project that 30 children under the age of 12 will be hospitalized in the first 60 days of the school year.

None of that mattered. Because only one child has died from COVID, they bought into anecdotal stories of kids who struggled in the pandemic, arguments that we should minimize disruptions (as if COVID outbreaks aren’t disruptive), and — as one sign read Thursday — “Parental Rights Over Childs Health.”

They were, it seems, afraid to stand up to the anti-mask militia — one woman literally waving a flag of the Three Percent militia. It’s their base and crossing them would jeopardize their political futures.

Not surprising, I guess, that politicians are going to be political. It’s probably equally unsurprising that …

Politicians lie

I know. Try to control your shock. But on Thursday we saw a particularly pernicious and disgusting lie trotted out to justify revoking the mask mandate.

Both council members Richard Snelgrove and Dea Theodore cited an increase in youth suicides as justification for voting against the mask requirement.

In explaining his opposition to masks, Snelgrove said: “Worst of all, we have seen a sharp increase in children’s suicides since the beginning of the pandemic.”

Theodore was more specific. “Childhood suicide is up almost 50.6% since the first government health mandates were implemented, a fact that Health Director [Angela] Dunn failed to mention in her presentation.”

Dr. Dunn probably didn’t mention it because it’s not true — at least not in the context Theodore insinuated.

Utah has not seen an increase in suicides. In January, the Utah Department of Health issued a report noting the rate had been steady and I checked on Thursday with the state’s suicide prevention coordinator who affirmed that has not changed.

Theodore, it appears, is referencing a recent study that found a 50.6% increase in suicide attempts nationally among girls age 12 to 17 over a four week period from February to March of this year.

It’s a splashy headline, but it’s not Utah data. It’s a very narrow window of time. Nothing in the study links the aberration to mask usage and, in fact, the study never even mentions masks. And the data point applies to an age group that would not have been impacted by requiring those under the age of 12 to mask up.

So you have to ask yourself: What kind of person exploits the very real tragedy of people taking their own lives to his or her political interests?

I’m not sure it’s possible to get any lower than that.

This will likely be bad

I hope I’m wrong, but there’s nothing that is very encouraging about where we are entering this school year.

As I mentioned, compared to this time last year, cases are higher and rising. Last year we had remote learning, social distancing, plexiglass barriers, staggered schedules, and we — most important — we had mask mandates.

What we did not have last year is a super-charged strain of the virus that is already infecting children and landing them in the hospital at a considerably higher rate.

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infections disease expert at Intermountain Healthcare, said Friday that logically we should expect to see more infections.

“The delta variant is incredibly transmissible so as we have schools going back into session very, very shortly and we don’t have a mask mandate or criteria for schools we will see transmission in schools,” he said. “We will see cases go up in children and some of those children will have severe cases and those children will end up in our hospitals.”

If I had a young student ...

Given all the uncertainty about how kids respond to the delta variant and the lack of precautions, I wouldn’t send my kid into that mess, at least for a few weeks. A child’s health means more than a handful of days of elementary school.

Obviously you can have your kid mask, but unless masking is widespread and sustained, it seems like an unnecessary risk.

Unfortunately this isn’t an option for many, many parents, leaving them in an unimaginably difficult decision of sending their kid off to school and hoping and praying for the best.

The GOP now owns what comes next

It’s the Republican Legislature that restricted the power of the governor, local health departments and local school districts to respond to this latest wave. It’s the Republicans on the Salt Lake County Council that affirmatively revoked attempts by the health department to protect kids.

Maybe things will be fine. We should all be hoping they are.

But if they’re not, we know exactly who is responsible and held accountable for those misguided decisions. Unfortunately it will be the children who suffer the real consequences.

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