SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert is weighing whether or not to implement a statewide mask mandate after Utah hospital officials said they are “alarmed” about their growing COVID-19 caseload, officials said Tuesday.

As another high number of COVID-19 cases were confirmed Tuesday, Utah’s top epidemiologist called the still high number of cases a “good sign” that could be the beginning of another plateau. But hospital officials remain concerned that the surge in cases will result in a surge on the hospital system and called for Herbert to mandate face masks statewide.

“As Utah has reopened our economy, we have been pleased to see the resurgence of economic activity and return of many normal activities. Unfortunately, we have also seen a serious increase of infection. That increase is bringing impacts on hospitals and health care professionals which are unsustainable. Although average length of hospital stay and the mortality rate are improving, we are alarmed at the caseload we project in the coming weeks and months,” the Utah Hospital Association said Tuesday in a letter sent to Herbert and legislative officials.

The governor met with legislative leaders on Tuesday and will meet with those overseeing the response to the pandemic on Wednesday to decide whether or not to implement a mask mandate, Herbert’s spokeswoman confirmed. An announcement on his decision is expected later this week.

Though the hospital association launched the #MaskUpUtah campaign two weeks ago, “a large enough segment” of the state is still not wearing masks, according to the letter.

Hospital officials pointed to a report from Goldman Sachs, which estimates a national mask mandate could cut the daily COVID-19 case growth rate from 1% to 0.6%. Additionally, preliminary data from the HERO antibody study in Utah found that there are “vastly” fewer unconfirmed cases than previously estimated in Utah, meaning the state remains “a long, long way from herd immunity,” the association noted.

After Utah saw a three-week uptick in cases beginning in early June — about two weeks after the state loosened social distancing restrictions — Dr. Angela Dunn issued a memo to state and local leaders on June 19 saying Utah would need to move back to its “orange,” or moderate risk phase in the pandemic if daily case numbers didn’t return to below 200.

But on Tuesday, Dunn appeared more optimistic about the surge in cases.

“The first thing is that we, as a health department, definitely make our recommendations from a public health perspective, and we’ve clearly not met that mark. But the good news is that we are starting to see that plateau. It is a higher plateau with cases around 500 to 550 per day, but it is a good sign to see that plateau, and we need to start seeing that decrease,” Dunn said Tuesday on KSL Newsradio’s “Dave & Dujanovic” show.

Health officials’ plan continues to focus on contact tracing and testing those who need tests, and providing information to the public about precautions that should be taken, Dunn said. The defenses against the virus include individuals choosing to stay home when sick, wearing face coverings in public and practicing physical distancing when possible, according to the epidemiologist.

When asked whether a statewide mask mandate could happen, Dunn said Gov. Gary Herbert favors local control but urges everyone to wear face masks.

“And I think we should all take that individual responsibility to help curb this pandemic,” Dunn said.

Hospital capacity in the state remains stable, though a higher number of new hospitalizations was reported Tuesday — 49 Utahns compared to between 16 and 35 people who were admitted during the past few days. Now, 197 patients are in Utah’s hospitals with the novel coronavirus as compared to 192 on Monday.

“Right now we’re doing OK. We are definitely anticipating a rise in our needs related to COVID-19, but currently, we’re doing OK,” said Dr. Richard Orlandi, University of Utah Health’s chief medical officer of ambulatory health.

He believes, however, the need for hospitalizations hasn’t yet caught up to the high daily numbers.

As cases start to rise in the community, it takes a few weeks for the rise to become apparent, he said. It then takes a week or two before cases require hospital care, and then another week or so before they require a transfer into the intensive care unit.

“It’s a stepwise progression that we see as just a natural course of the disease,” Orlandi explained.

At U. Health, providers are beginning to see the case increases reflected in demand for care, he said. But colleagues across the state are seeing an even greater demand, he said, and are working together to manage the care load and capacity.

Likewise, Intermountain Healthcare officials said Monday that though they’ve responded to double the demand for hospital care by COVID-19 patients within the past month, they haven’t yet needed to implement their surge plans but are prepared to do so.

If new daily case counts continue to rise, Orlandi said, at some point they will overwhelm the system. Since the pandemic began, the numbers have remained consistent in Utah and “there always is a catching up,” Orlandi said.

“What we saw happen in New York, what we’re seeing happening in some parts of Texas, could very well happen here in Utah. We have great health care here in Utah, but it has its limits, and we all are trying to avoid that situation where we don’t have enough capacity to take care of the patients who are coming to us not just for COVID, but for everything else,” Orlandi said.

Like Dunn, Orlandi encouraged residents to take responsibility for helping keep the surge at bay.

“It’s critically important that we manage this problem upstream with masking, social distancing, hand-washing. Those individual actions collectively upstream will prevent the overrunning of our hospital’s capacities downstream, and we’ll be able to provide the care that we will need to for everybody,” he said.

But it’s too soon to tell at what point we could overwhelm the system.

“This is simple arithmetic, that a percentage of patients will require hospitalization, a percentage of them will require an ICU, and a percentage of them will require a ventilator, and frankly, a percentage of them will die. And so the more we can do upstream with that large number of 400 or 500 cases a day, will prevent the numbers downstream,” Orlandi said.

New cases

On Tuesday, Utah health officials reported 564 more people confirmed to have the virus and four additional deaths.

The new cases were reported as 7,007 people received tests. They bring the state’s total cases since the pandemic began to 26,033 out of 382,849 tests — a 6.8% positive rate, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The latest fatalities were three Salt Lake County men — one between the ages of 25 and 44 who was hospitalized when he died; one between 45 and 64 who was a long-term care resident; and one between 65 and 84 who was not hospitalized when he died.

A Utah County woman between the ages of 25 and 44 also died while hospitalized.

Just under 17,800 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, 12,994; 894 hospitalized; 120 deaths.
  • Utah County, 4,761; 244 hospitalized; 24 deaths.
  • Southwest Utah, 1,805; 111 hospitalized; 13 deaths.
  • Bear River (Box Elder, Cache, Rich), 1,658; 63 hospitalized; 3 deaths.
  • Davis County, 1,522; 95 hospitalized; 6 deaths.
  • Weber-Morgan, 1,293; 90 hospitalized; 14 deaths.
  • Summit County, 538; 47 hospitalized; 1 death.
  • Wasatch County, 427; 20 hospitalized; 4 deaths.
  • San Juan County, 417; 60 hospitalized; 9 deaths.
  • Tooele County, 294; 12 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Central Utah, 227; 13 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 56; 4 hospitalized; 0 deaths.
  • Southeast Utah, 41; 0 hospitalized; 0 deaths.