SALT LAKE CITY — On its inaugural trip to Utah, the massive Boeing Dreamlifter aircraft delivered 500,000 face masks for Utahns — many of them headed for students going back to school this fall.
While it isn’t certain how Utah schools will welcome students in August, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said districts are busy making plans for the 670,000 students enrolled in public education to return.
“We want these students to be able to go back to school this fall,” she said, adding that in addition to learning and academics, returning to school would aid children’s mental health and overall growth and well-being.
Gov. Gary Herbert said the plan is for schools to open “with some modifications.”
As part of the “A Mask for Every Utahn” program, the masks will be distributed to school districts across the state with the greatest need, providing all “students and adults in Utah schools access to materials they need to keep themselves and others safe,” Dickson said.
The masks were made available by Utah-based men’s custom clothier H.M. Cole, and Cotopaxi, a Utah-based outdoor gear brand. Help from Boeing and its partners was necessary to get the masks overseas from where they were manufactured. It was Boeing’s 12th COVID-19 transport mission bringing personal protective equipment to the United States.
Herbert has stopped short of mandating masks throughout the state, a move many have questioned, but he maintains that Utah continues to have the country’s lowest COVID-19 mortality rate — less than 1%. Utah also has the second-lowest unemployment rate — 8.5% — as Herbert has tried to strike a balance between “protecting lives and protecting people’s livelihoods,” he said.
Herbert pointed out “the sound of commerce” flying overhead as planes took off sporadically on a nearby tarmac at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Wednesday.
He said he hopes Utahns will “do the right thing” to protect themselves and others.
“I think it’s hard to overstate — and more and more people are coming to the realization that the single, easiest and most effective thing we can do to slow and stop the spread of the COVID-19 is to wear masks,” Herbert said after greeting the plane on the ramp at UPS in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
“It’s a way of showing respect for those you associate with,” he said. “It’s one thing to pray for a miracle and another to pray for a miracle and do nothing.”
“Faith without works is dead,” Herbert said, quoting the Bible verse.
In all, the state has ordered 2.3 million cloth reusable face masks and has sent nearly 1.2 million to 272,156 households across the state, as well as 70,000 to nonprofit organizations, veterans and retirement homes, and others, to assist the most vulnerable populations.
More than one million masks ordered by the state are being made in Utah by local manufacturers, at a cost of $4.50 per mask. The masks provided by Cotopaxi and H.M. Cole cost $3.25 a piece and shipping was free, said Ben Hart, deputy director at the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which has headed up the #MaskUpUtah initiative.
He said all of it is funded with money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.
So far, masks have been sent to about a third of all Utahns. Any unclaimed masks that Utah has already procured will be distributed at grocery stores or retail outlets, to reach Utah’s most vulnerable and the most affected populations, as well as ensure employees are kept safe.
The child-size masks made by Cotopaxi have adjustable straps and “the softest fabric on the inside that is very comfortable,” Hart said.
Acquiring the masks, Herbert said, has been “probably the most difficult logistical situation in the history of our state.” Unparalleled competition for a limited supply and various international restrictions on travel and shipping has posed numerous problems.
COVID-19 cases continue to rise
Utah has seen a sharp increase in cases since gradually loosening restrictions that were first imposed in mid-March. Salt Lake and Summit counties have now mandated wearing masks in public, and Grand County has requested to do the same.
“This has been a hard and challenging time for our state and our country,” Herbert said, adding, “We need to do more if we’re going to slow this down.”
Each jurisdiction, he said, knows best how to handle its own situation and any requests to his office to require masks will be evaluated. Herbert anticipates making a decision on Grand County’s request later this week.
All three counties where officials have wanted to require masks have experienced larger-than-expected numbers of positive cases and continue to see widespread community transmission, though much of the state is also seeing a rise in numbers due to community spread.
A few of the most rural areas of the state have moved into the green phase of economic recovery, allowing more businesses to open and people to move about more freely. Salt Lake City remains in the orange phase, meaning there is more risk of infection and transmission throughout the capital city and many restrictions, including required face coverings in public, are still in place.
The Utah Department of Health on Wednesday reported 499 new cases of COVID-19 and one new death, a man between age 65 and 84 who was hospitalized in Salt Lake County at the time of his death. A total of 173 people have died with COVID-19 in Utah.
There are 194 people currently hospitalized in Utah with the disease, and the health department reports 12,707 cases have recovered in the state, after three weeks from diagnosis have passed. In all, 22,716 people in Utah have tested positive with the novel coronavirus since mid-March.
Wednesday’s rate of positives is 6.6% of all people who are tested.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Herbert said, encouraging all Utahns to wear a mask, particularly when social distancing isn’t possible.
The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 11,437; 805 hospitalized; 108 deaths.
- Utah County, 4,154; 215 hospitalized; 22 deaths.
- Southwest Utah, 1,553; 100 hospitalized; 11 deaths.
- Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,538; 52 hospitalized; 2 deaths.
- Davis County, 1,218; 84 hospitalized; 5 deaths.
- Weber-Morgan, 1,004; 70 hospitalized; 13 deaths.
- Summit County, 493; 47 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Wasatch County, 410; 20 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
- San Juan County, 402; 55 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
- Tooele County, 247; 12 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Central Utah, 173; 11 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 50; 4 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
- Southeast Utah, 37; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.