Gov. Spencer Cox spent nearly two hours on Wednesday talking with House Republicans about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state, particularly among school-aged children, and what steps, if any, the state can do to minimize those numbers. He also spent an hour meeting with House and Senate Democrats earlier in the day.
Legislative sources who were not authorized to speak publicly told The Tribune the meeting with Cox was cordial as he discussed the current COVID-19 situation. But, curiously, he did not specify any action he was prepared to take, nor did he ask lawmakers to get behind any recommended course of action.
Sources said Cox did not ask to institute a statewide mask mandate, nor did he say he wanted to call a special session to have lawmakers take action as the number of COVID cases spike. The only request from the governor’s office was to work together to find a solution.
Attendees described the meeting as more of a listening and brainstorming session, with Cox asking for more collaboration on finding solutions.
One attendee told The Tribune it was clear the governor was frustrated by the Legislature’s not dealing more effectively with the pandemic. He was pushing to see if lawmakers could talk some sense into the House and Senate leadership teams, the attendee said.
Cox reportedly stressed one difficulty facing the state is the number of health care workers leaving their jobs because they are burned out or frustrated that the situation has deteriorated again.
There was also talk of how to get more Utahns vaccinated against COVID. Right now, 56.6% of all Utahns have had at least one dose of the vaccine, and 49.4% are fully vaccinated. Cox was certainly open to ideas.
“If the prophet telling people to get vaccinated isn’t working, I don’t know what other celebrity endorsements in Utah would work,” Cox reportedly said according to multiple sources with knowledge of the meeting.
House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Layton, said in a statement following the meeting lawmakers would form a working group to collaborate with Cox’s administration.
“During the meeting, members of our caucus presented several additional measures that should be taken to protect Utahns. Delivering clear and accurate information directly to parents related to conditions in their children’s respective schools will greatly enhance their ability to make informed decisions. Additionally, placing added emphasis on increasing vaccination rates among 12 to 18-year-olds will have a significant impact on reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our secondary schools,” Wilson said.
Wilson also confirmed Cox did not ask for a statewide mask mandate.
Cox’s tricky political landscape
Cox is clearly frustrated by his inability to take action, mostly due to the handcuffs lawmakers slapped on him earlier this year. The so-called “pandemic endgame” bill, as well as limits to his emergency powers, have left him with few options to respond. Lawmakers also took the authority to issue mask mandate away from local school boards, giving that ability to local health departments with oversight from county governments.
He also is acutely aware that anything he does can be undone by the GOP-dominated legislature, which could be politically damaging for the first-term governor who has been in office less than a year.
“The laws we have in place now require collaboration with the Legislature. They have the ability to overturn anything we do. It’s been very difficult,” Cox said at a Tuesday news conference.
“We will have present with us our health care professionals to answer any questions they have. And then our hope is that we will be able to find some consensus on further measures as we move forward,” Cox added.
Earlier this month, Cox lamented the situation in a pair of emails obtained by The Tribune through an open records request.
On August 16, Cox wrote to Speaker Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, about the limits placed on him by the so-called “pandemic endgame” bill.
“Because of the limits of the endgame bill, we really don’t have many tools at our disposal to try and short circuit the growth,” Cox wrote.
Cox said the state would continue to push for an increase in vaccinations, but that will not have any impact for at least a month. He added the endgame bill made it “excruciatingly difficult” for districts to do anything to respond to the increasing number of cases.
Cox has consistently said he needs the Legislature to sign off on any action he takes. That’s not quite true. Cox could use his emergency powers to require masks in schools, which would be in effect for 30 days.
Such a move would put the onus on lawmakers. They could convene a special session to override such an order. If they couldn’t find the votes to do that, then leadership would form a committee to discuss the order, gather data and take public input on whether to extend the emergency order or let it expire at the end of that time period.
Theoretically, Cox could force a showdown with lawmakers and dare them to override a mask order. But, according to the email to Adams and Wilson, he is not keen to see that scenario play out.
“I honestly don’t know the best way to proceed here. I understand the political realities that you face with your respective legislative bodies. Nor am I interested in a repeat of what played out in Salt Lake County, where I issue some sort of order that is immediately overridden by the legislature. I think that division would do more to harm our state with no actual benefit,” Cox wrote.
He then cautiously floated the possibility of a statewide mask order in schools.
“However, I am guessing that you don’t see any support at all for a statewide mask mandate for schools or even just ages 5-11,” Cox said.
Last week, Cox held a meeting with county health officials and school superintendents where he offered to issue a statewide mask mandate but could not garner enough support to act.
On August 18, Cox again wrote to Adams and Wilson, warning them that COVID numbers are “spiking in our young people as we head back to school.” He said COVID, coupled with a seasonal increase in RSV cases among schoolchildren, presented an enormous challenge.
“Those numbers are low on a per-capita basis, the shear (sic) enormity of the spread (without school exposure), when combined with RSV, will quickly overwhelm our capacity,” Cox wrote.
Cox then said he had put together a proposal for a pair of orders from the Utah Department of Health he hoped they would find palatable.
“My goals have always been as follows: 1) give people options to choose as much as possible, 2) protect our health care systems, 3) keep kids in school and 4) act together with the legislature,” Cox wrote.
“I know none of this is easy, and we would all love to avoid it if possible. But I am at a loss as to what more we can do. I hope your leadership and membership can support these partial measures and understand the real severity we are facing,” Cox said.
A worsening situation
There is good reason for Cox to desperately seek a solution. The projections for COVID-19 cases in Utah schools now that students have returned are grim.
According to a presentation from the Utah Department of Health to legislative leadership, if the same percentage increase in COVID cases Utah saw during the first month of school in 2020 happens this year, the numbers could be catastrophic.
There was a 192% increase in infections for students 5-10 last year. That projects 134 new cases for that age group per day after the first month of school.
11-13-year-olds saw cases jump 126% last year. That could mean 68 new cases per day for the first month.
14-17-year-olds could account for 143 new cases every day, a 211% increase.
In total, that is 345 school-age children diagnosed with COVID every day. If last year’s trend holds, 7-8 school-age children will be hospitalized every week for the first month after school starts.
A pair of proposals
Cox and state health officials are mulling two possible health orders as a response to the COVID surge.
According to a document obtained by The Tribune through an open records request, the first puts teeth into the already recommended “test to stay” protocol. The plan requires isolation for individuals who test positive for COVID-19.
Those who are exposed to the virus but don’t test positive can remain in school if they are fully vaccinated, if they and the person who tested positive were both wearing masks, if they had tested positive for COVID in the last 90 days, or if the person who was exposed was wearing a KN95 mask.
If they don’t meet any of those four exceptions, there is a menu of options for quarantining. They include staying at home for 10 days or 7 days with a negative test, and they are showing no symptoms. They can also remain in school if they wear a mask for 10 days or test negative after 7 days and show no symptoms.
The “test to stay” plan would be triggered if 2% of the students in the school test positive. All students and staff will be required to wear a mask once “Test to Stay” is triggered.
Cox has also pitched a mask requirement for schools experiencing an outbreak of COVID. The proposal implements the mask mandate once 1% of the student body has a positive test or 15 students in schools with less than 1,500 students. The masking requirement ends when the number of infections drops below 1%.
These orders could be put in place by the State Health Department, with lawmakers having the ability to overturn them with a majority vote. If not, the order would remain in place for 30 days and could only be extended by a positive vote from the Legislature.
Cox will make his pitch to Senate Republicans on Thursday.