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We won’t whip COVID-19 just by being Utahns alone

If Utahns want to return to some degree of normal in time for school, now is the time to mask up, and not as a suggestion

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Shoppers wear masks at City Creek Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 26, 2020.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Maybe, as I’ve heard it suggested, the way to keep people from rioting in Japan is to stand on a box and say, “Please stop rioting.”

I don’t know if that is true, but I’ve heard it said about Sweden, as well. And yet, it would be hard to find two countries with similar reputations for niceness who approached the coronavirus pandemic the same way but have had such different results.

Utah could be yet another case study. The Deseret News has launched an effort to get people to wear masks and practice social distancing, among other things, for a 55-day period to bring down the state’s infection rate and curb the current surge.

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That’s an effort based on the best scientific evidence. One widely quoted study led by Berkeley researcher De Kai created a computer model that concluded the virus could be conquered fairly quickly if at least 80% of the population wore a face mask. Keep it in the 40% range and you see almost no benefits, he said. 

By now, you ought to be aware that Utah is in the midst of a COVID-19 surge, as is much of the western United States. According to the Worldometers.info website, Utah now has a total case rate of 9,507 per million population.

That’s the 22nd highest rate in the country, and it has been growing steadily in recent weeks. The state used to be doing well, but now, not so much. The reason may well be that its leaders were too eager to loosen restrictions.

The desire to reopen “nonessential” businesses is understandable. The effects of an economic shutdown are real and devastating. But when the state moved its unique color-coded alert system from red to orange to yellow (and green in some areas of the state), it was confusing. Few people seemed to hear the other part of the state’s message, which was that wearing a mask was still encouraged.

Frankly, it should be more than just encouraged. The mask mandate in Salt Lake County and a few other places is the best hope we have for keeping the economy going and opening schools in the fall while still seeing a reduction in cases. It ought to be enforced statewide.

Anyone can play with De Kai’s computer model (it’s found here: http://dek.ai/masksim/#introtutorial) It shows how even homemade masks, which are between 65% and 85% effective in stopping the spread of the virus, can stem the tide if worn by 80% of people.

Of course, his model is a bit dated already. In the tutorial, he says it’s important for this level of mask wearing to take place by the 50th day of the pandemic, otherwise it won’t be as effective. That 50th day came sometime in April or May. We have little choice but to hope we still can get on top of things before hospitals are overwhelmed. In Arizona, officials already have ordered refrigerated trucks that might be used as backup mortuaries.

Getting back to Japan and Sweden, each country decided not to lock down its economy when the pandemic struck. Governments in both countries suggested people take certain measures, but these weren’t mandatory.

As of this week, Japan, a nation of 126.5 million people, had seen 21,868 cases and 982 deaths. Sweden, with only 10.1 million people, had 76,001 cases and 5,545 deaths. To put it a different way, Sweden’s death rate is 549 per million, while Japan’s is 8. 

I’ve read a lot of speculation about this. The BBC quoted a professor in Tokyo who thinks the country may have been exposed earlier to a COVID-like virus that gave people a form of immunity. The same report said some people in Japan believe they have a natural genetic superiority. 

But a better explanation may be that mask wearing has been common there for more than a century. “If you get a cough or a cold here it is expected that you will don a mask to protect those around you,” the BBC said.

Utah also has a relatively low death rate compared to other states. It has seen 30,030 cases, with 226 deaths as of Tuesday. Missouri has seen almost exactly as many cases, but with 1,137 deaths. What’s the difference? Lifestyle? Utah’s relatively younger population? Our niceness?

Maybe, but we don’t have time to ponder that much. If Utahns want to return to some degree of normal in time for school, now is the time to mask up, and not as a suggestion. It needs to be a statewide requirement.