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Nearly a month into Salt Lake County mask mandate, COVID-19 cases decreasing

An employee hands out face masks to customers outside of the Walmart in Orem on Monday, July 20, 2020. Monday was first day the retail giant required all customers to wear a face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
An employee hands out face masks to customers outside of the Walmart in Orem on Monday, July 20, 2020. Monday was first day the retail giant required all customers to wear a face masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly one month since Salt Lake County instituted a public mask mandate, the county — which once accounted for half of Utah’s new coronavirus cases each day — is seeing the results.

On Monday, Salt Lake County’s new cases, at 171, were the lowest they’ve been since June 22, when 152 cases were confirmed.

“We don’t yet have any data specific to face coverings, but in recent days, Salt Lake County cases have been a lower share of the state’s total cases; while we used to consistently be 45–50% of the state’s cases, we are now around 35% most days,” said Nicholas Rupp, spokesman with the Salt Lake County Health Department.

Since July 10 — exactly two weeks into the mask mandate — the county’s case counts daily have for the most part remained under 300. Before that, they had reached into the high-300s and even surpassed 400.

“While we don’t have data that shows face coverings are the definitive reason for our recent improvement (as compared to other interventions like social distancing), it’s certainly possible the face covering requirement is having a positive effect on Salt Lake County case counts, especially compared to what we’re seeing in the rest of the state,” Rupp said.

In Summit County, the mask mandate was also put into place on June 26 when the area wasn’t seeing a surge. The county’s numbers have since remained relatively flat, with between one and 10 cases confirmed each day. But on Saturday, exactly two weeks after the 4th of July, the county saw a spike of 15 cases. Sunday, however, brought just two cases.

Fighting the surge

On Monday, the Utah Medical Association voiced its support for universal masking when physical distancing isn’t possible.

“If everyone would do these simple things, the virus could be stopped much sooner and we could return to normal social and economic activity. But without these measures, we are likely to see a prolonged pandemic with resultant harms to our health and economic stability,” Dr. Matt Wilson, association president, said in a statement.

“Please, wear the mask. Wash your hands often and keep your distance in public. These may seem like little things. So is giving blood. But each can save lives. These are the simplest ways I know to be a hero every day,” he said.

Based on what he’s seen at University of Utah Health and while visiting businesses in the area, Dr. Russell Vinik, U. Health chief medical operations officer, believes the mandate has made a drastic difference in Salt Lake County.

Medical assistant Namera Ned tests Davina Vitalis for COVID-19 at Intermountain Healthcare’s Taylorsville Clinic in Taylorsville on Friday, July 17, 2020.
Medical assistant Namera Ned tests Davina Vitalis for COVID-19 at Intermountain Healthcare’s Taylorsville Clinic in Taylorsville on Friday, July 17, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

It takes between 10 and 14 days before the results of a mask mandate can likely be seen. “We know masks work and they’re effective in reducing infections, and the time course is very consistent with the mandate,” he said.

Salt Lake County’s new cases appeared to start decreasing July 6, “whereas the other counties, if I combined all the other counties in the state, they’ve gone up significantly since that date. They’ve gone up about 30% since that time,” Vinik said.

Also important to note is that residents are following the mask mandate. This past weekend while visiting stores, Vinik noticed that “everybody was wearing a mask.”

“And so you put that together and it’s pretty compelling that it probably is the mask mandate which has made this difference,” he said.

Though the county is just starting to see results of the mandate, Vinik said, they will likely continue for several months because “when one person infects one person, but then that person no longer infects anybody else, we’ll see that continued drop over a period of several months because you just stop that cycle, which is what we’ve seen with COVID.”

And more stores are implementing their own mask requirements. Among them, Walmart’s began on Monday. Vinik said he believes that will also have a wide impact not only in decreasing cases, but in helping more people adjust to wearing them.

Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties remain the only counties with mask mandates in Utah as the state’s cases continue to surge. State and other county officials have said they want residents to voluntarily wear masks without a directive.

“That sends a mixed message if someone lives in Utah County but works in Salt Lake, and they’re getting a mixed message about, ‘Well, you can not wear your mask now, but you need to wear your mask when you come into Salt Lake County.’ And so it would be a great thing if we had that type of consistency,” Vinik noted.

In Davis County, which started seeing an uptick in early June, daily new cases have doubled, with new cases now ranging between about 50 and 70 a day.

But a mask mandate is still something county officials want to avoid, said Trevor Warner, spokesman with the Davis County Health Department. The hope is “we just need to stay the course so they don’t have to do anything more serious,” he said, and that residents and businesses will choose to wear masks as a way to help their neighbors.

On Friday, county officials asked businesses to mandate masks within their stores, and pleaded with community members to wear them.

It’s a topic county officials discuss daily, Warner said. For now, they’re waiting and seeing whether the state can lower its case count to fewer than 500 each day by August, as Gov. Gary Herbert challenged the state to do earlier this month. If that doesn’t happen, Herbert warned a mask mandate or other restrictions could be put in place.

BYU research

On Monday, a group of Brigham Young University researchers published a review of research surrounding masks in the hopes of helping dispel public confusion.

Reading more than 115 scientific studies on COVID-19, the four researchers found “that wearing masks reduces the transmission of COVID-19 for health care workers and the public. Most of this evidence is COVID-19 specific and has emerged in the past few months,” they said in a statement.

The studies reviewed also suggest that cloth masks can stop 90% or more of respiratory droplets that carry the virus from being dispersed into the air, and that they might also protect the wearer from infection, according to the BYU researchers.

Masks are also proven to be safe, the researchers said, “with only minor and uncommon side effects.”

Vinik agreed.

“Masks are very safe. Doctors and health care workers have been wearing masks for probably a century or more, and in my career over 20 years, I’ve never seen or heard of anybody having any respiratory issues related to mask use,” he said.

A particle of oxygen or carbon dioxide is about 1 million time smaller than the pores of a mask, Vinik explained, meaning that air, oxygen and carbon dioxide flow freely through a mask. A small group of people with greatly impaired lung function might experience decreased flow of oxygen, but they’re also the ones who might benefit most from the mask as they would likely not survive COVID-19.

“Researchers from hospitals, universities, the private sector, and government agencies have concluded that masks could be one of the most powerful and cost-effective tools to stop COVID-19 and accelerate the economic recovery. There is universal agreement, however, that masking alone will not be enough to stop the pandemic. Masking is most effective when combined with physical distancing, frequent hand-washing, rapid testing, and coordinated contact tracing,” the BYU researchers said.

New cases

For the first time in five days, Utah confirmed fewer than 500 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, health officials said.

Of 6,582 test results recorded Monday, 409 were positive — a 6.2% rate, according to the Utah Department of Health. They bring the state’s total since the pandemic began to 34,526 positives of 469,404 lab tests, an overall positive rate of 7.4%.

The current seven-day average number of new cases is 612, and the average positive rate of tests is 9.8%.

Currently, 199 patients are receiving hospital treatment for the novel coronavirus, down just one since Sunday. Just over 2,000 have been hospitalized in Utah for the disease since the pandemic hit Utah.

The state’s death toll stands at 247, with four new deaths reported Monday — two Salt Lake County men, one between 45-64 who was hospitalized when he died, and one older than 85 who was a resident of a long-term care facility; a Utah County man between 45-64 who was also a long-term care resident; and a Weber County man between 45-64 who was hospitalized when he died.

About 21,500 of Utah’s cases are considered recovered after passing the three-week point since their diagnoses.

The latest breakdown of Utah cases, hospitalizations and deaths by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 16,693; 1,098 hospitalized; 138 deaths.
  • Utah County, 6,380; 306 hospitalized; 31 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 2,497; 134 hospitalized; 21 deaths.
  • Davis County, 2,360; 140 hospitalized; 7 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 2,071; 129 hospitalized; 22 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,945; 75 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Summit County, 637; 51 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • San Juan County, 536; 66 hospitalized; 19 deaths.
  • Wasatch County, 491; 20 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 441; 19 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 306; 19 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 109; 8 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 60; 1 hospitalized; 0 deaths.