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2 Utah hospital systems will keep mask requirements after statewide mandate lifts

SHARE 2 Utah hospital systems will keep mask requirements after statewide mandate lifts

Heidi Enger, a licensed practical nurse with the Salt Lake County Health Department, fills a syringe with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Utah Islamic Center in West Jordan on Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider, announced Friday that caregivers, patients and visitors will need to keep wearing masks even after the statewide mask mandate is lifted April 10.

“We had a mask requirement in our hospitals, in our clinic facilities well before any kind of state mandate. We did it because masks protect patients, they protect caregivers and they protect visitors, just plain and simple,” Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician Dr. Eddie Stenehjem said Friday.

He said the policy is continuing because “we feel it is our duty” to take the precaution against spreading COVID-19, especially among patients who are more vulnerable because of their medical conditions, but added the level of risk is being evaluated weekly.

“We’ll pull that back when we deem that it’s safe for all those involved. The reason we do it is out of an abundance of caution.” Stenehjem said.

University of Utah Health is also continuing its mask requirement beyond April 10, spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said.

“Regardless of current state, county or city guidelines, all patients, companions and staff must continue wearing an approved face mask (a well-secured paper or cloth mask that covers the mouth and nose) when entering U. of U. Health facilities, and at all times while inside U. of U. Health facilities,” she said in a statement.

Wilets said University of Utah Health “is encouraged by the state’s increased COVID-19 vaccination efforts, as well as the recent decline in Utah’s daily COVID-19 cases. However, data suggests that the risk of spreading COVID-19 is still a significant concern and one of the best ways to continually protect each other is by wearing masks.”

Several grocery store chains, including Harmons and Smith’s, have announced employees and customers must stay masked after the state mandate is lifted.

The 2021 Legislature passed a bill setting an April 10 end date for the mask mandate put in place last December, as well as other COVID-19 restrictions as soon as the state receives 1.63 million vaccine doses, enough for 70% of the population, as long as case counts and hospitalization rates for the virus remain low.

Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he doesn’t see “much upside at all” to the bill, but he negotiated with lawmakers who claimed to have a veto-proof majority for ending the mask mandate immediately during the recent legislative session and settled on the April 10 date.

He said he is concerned he would “lose the respect of the Legislature and that’s not how I operate,” if he vetoed the bill after reaching a deal with lawmakers. Cox has until next Thursday to sign, veto or allow legislation passed last session to become law without his signature.

The governor had hoped to wait until the state hits that 1.63 million mark for vaccine doses before doing away with the mask mandate to ensure Utah was closer to herd immunity against COVID-19. However, it takes at least two weeks after the final dose of a vaccine before someone can be considered fully vaccinated against the virus.

Stenehjem said his advice is to continue wearing masks around others, particularly indoors when it’s not possible to social distance. That goes for children, too, the doctor said, since they are not immune even though infection rates are lower and vaccines, at least until the fall, are not available to anyone under 16 years old.

“I can tell you that I’m going to be wearing a mask April 11 and moving forward. People are going to have to make their own call on this,” he said, adding he expects many Utahns will want to keep protecting themselves and those around them. “Masks have become kind of a social norm at this point. People are comfortable with it.”

Stenehjem said case rates may have fallen but they are still high, and more Utahns need to be vaccinated, citing the spread of more easily transmissible virus variants that have already forced shutdowns in Britain, Italy and other countries as well as those developing in California and other parts of the United States.

“I really think this next month is a time to really continue to focus on the things that we’ve done that we know work. We know masks work. We know minimizing your contacts works,” the doctor said, urging Utahns to keep that up at least through the end of April.

At that point, “the weather’s nice outside. You can socialize outside. We have universal vaccine availability. In a month we’re going to be in a great spot to really be thinking about, OK, how do we truly open up,” he said. “We’ve done this for a year. We can do it for another month.”

The governor announced Thursday all Utahns will be eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 starting next Wednesday, more than a week earlier than planned. He acknowledged, however, it could still take weeks to get an appointment and said Utahns should be patient.

Currently, vaccines are available to Utahns 50 and older, those with an expanded list of specified medical conditions, health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staffs, and K-12 teachers ad school staffs.

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers include 17 additional deaths

Friday, the Utah Department of Health reported 447 new COVID-19 cases and 17 additional deaths from the virus, including 12 that occurred before Feb. 19. That brings the total number of coronavirus cases in the state to 380,787, and Utah’s death toll from the virus to 2,058.

A total of 1,111,185 vaccine doses have been administered in Utah, a daily increase of 31,146.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 474 per day, and 5,967 more Utahns have taken COVID-19 tests since Thursday. A total of 15,565 tests were administered. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests at 4.2% when all test results are included and 8.3% when multiple tests by an individual over the past 90 days are excluded.

Currently, there are 176 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. The deaths reported Friday are:

  • A Cache County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Cache County woman, between the ages of 25 and 44, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Davis County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • An Iron County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County man, 19-24, hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • Three Salt Lake County women, 65-84, all hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Tooele County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • A Uintah County woman, 45-64, hospitalized.
  • Two Washington County men, 65-84, both hospitalized.
  • A Washington County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Weber County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.