Health officials have been caught between two difficult crosscurrents during this pandemic. On one side is the virus itself, with its constant mutations, and the need to keep up with the latest, ever-changing scientific knowledge of how it reproduces and spreads.
On the other is a public typified by many voices of skepticism, pseudoscience and, in some cases, anger at the suggestion that lifestyles be curtailed at all to stop the spread.
Given the current surge of cases and the full-to-the-brim situation in intensive care units, public skepticism seems to be winning.
Thank goodness Salt Lake and Summit counties are doing the right thing. Their decision to impose mask mandates late last week was a responsible approach for local governments charged with protecting local residents.
“We desperately need to use every tool available to ensure our hospitals can continue providing excellent health care through this surge,” said a statement by Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Then, in a nod to one of the most devastating aspects of the latest surge, the toll it is taking on the people local residents rely on most, she added, “We also need to ensure that our essential services have the staff necessary to operate — from law enforcement, to plow drivers, to schoolteachers.”
Hospital workers could be added to that list, as they labor to care for patients under overcrowded conditions. Those who quickly dismiss the current surge have likely not visited an emergency room or an ICU ward.
We were glad to hear that the Salt Lake County Council — by state law, one authority with the final say over the matter — has no plans to take it up at a council meeting. That means it is likely to remain in place until Feb. 7, unless conditions improve dramatically.
State lawmakers also have the power to intervene, and statements coming from Capitol Hill are concerning. House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, called on Salt Lake County to reconsider. A statement from State Senate President Stuart Adams on Monday said in part, “We should take a balanced approach of saving lives, livelihoods and kids’ education while preserving personal liberties.”
Some have confused mask mandates with an affront to personal liberties. Under the circumstances of a surging pandemic, mask requirements are minimally restrictive, affording some degree of protection while allowing the economy to continue to function. They represent the best balanced approach to this public health crisis.
In a Deseret News-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll last September, 53% of respondents said decisions about mask mandates should be left to either state or local health departments. Only 8% said they should be left to the Legislature. Naturally, health professionals are better equipped to deal with a medical crisis than most politicians.
Salt Lake County’s mask mandate was declared by Dunn, the health department director. As she put it, “It is my obligation as health officer to take the action I believe has the best chance to prevent unnecessary suffering throughout our community.”
If it ever became obvious she was abusing that obligation, the County Council or Legislature could intervene. In the meantime, COVID-19, with its delta and omicron variants, is spreading as never before. On Friday, the state reported 9,469 new cases. On Monday, the weekend toll was announced as 24,147, with 20 more deaths.
Cars are lined up at testing stations. Hospitals are rationing care and canceling surgeries, sports teams are reimposing rules for fans to show proof of vaccinations or negative tests. BYU has imposed the same for on-campus, indoor events of more than 100 people.
Under the circumstances, a mask mandate seems entirely appropriate.