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Keep wearing masks even as COVID-19 restrictions ease, doctor says

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Newman Knowlton gets a COVID-19 rapid test at the Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Masks are still key to protecting Utahns against COVID-19 even as some restrictions are being relaxed in Salt Lake and other counties, an infectious diseases physician with the region’s largest health care provider said Friday.

“Mask wearing, as much as we’re all tired of it, has been a very important tool,” Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician, said during a virtual news conference. “We’ve got a number of layers which, when all implemented together, have proven to be successful at decreasing transmission.”

Besides masks, those include avoiding poorly ventilated areas and social distancing from others when possible.

Thursday, Gov. Spencer Cox announced that Salt Lake, Davis and several other counties have moved from high to moderatetransmission risk levels, a state designation that allows masked attendees at concerts, sporting events and other public gatherings to sit side by side.

A statewide mask mandate remains in place for all of Utah’s 29 counties. However, as vaccinations ramp up nationwide, Texas and a number of other states are already lifting mask mandates and other measures intended to protect residents against the spread of COVID-19.

Public health officials, including state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, have said dropping restrictions “seemingly too early” puts all Americans at risk because the virus does not respect geographic boundaries and could encourage the spread of new, more deadly variants.

Webb said Utah’s shift in transmission risk levels, based on case counts, positive test rates and hospitalizations, represents “an intentional approach” to reopening the state.

“That’s the wisest course of action right now, is to do an incremental staged reopening as less and less people in the community are susceptible,” he said.

But the doctor said enough Utahns haven’t developed immunity to the coronavirus, either through vaccination or contracting the disease, “to give the green light on easing up on some of those restrictions.” He said Utahns should keep in mind their own circumstances even when additional activities are permitted.

“As we continue to have less restrictions during this staged reopening, I think an important piece of advice is, ‘Be wise. Be careful about your environment. Know your own risk,’” Webb said. “Remember that when one layer is not possible, you’re taking precautions with a different layer.”

That means Utahns who are someplace where they can’t distance themselves from others should wear a mask, the doctor said, while those eating in a restaurant or someplace else where they wouldn’t be wearing a mask should stay at least 6 feet away from others.

Even after getting vaccinated, Webb suggested Utahns should take their own health into consideration before ditching masks and other precautions around friends and family members outside their households.

“If you’ve been vaccinated, you’re healthy, your immune system works,” the doctor said, “Then yes, I think making some intentional decisions about the risks that you have been being very careful about to date, then being around those you love is absolutely appropriate.”

Others, however, are only able to get the vaccine now because they are at high risk for contracting coronavirus due to their age or chronic medical issues, and for them, that might not be the case, Webb said.

“It’s less likely that the vaccine will be fully effective in some individuals. So it’s a person-by-person decision,” Webb said. “Not everyone should view the vaccine as a ticket to full freedom yet while we still have community transmission.”

The governor added Utahns 50 and older as well as those with additional medical conditions to the state’s vaccine eligibility list starting Monday. The new medical conditions are obesity with a body mass index of 30 or higher, down from the limit of 40 or higher, as well as chronic kidney disease and Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes.

Those now able to be vaccinated include Utahs with a longer list of specified medical conditions, along with Utahns 65 and older, health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff, and K-12 teachers and school staff.

Webb noted it is possible to get COVID-19 after the first of the two shots needed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Only the latest vaccine approved for use in the United States, from Johnson & Johnson, is fully effective after a single dose.

“When that happens, typically the symptoms are more mild,” Webb said, adding Utahns who do contract the virus between the first and second shots of the two-dose vaccines need to wait to get their booster shot until they’re over their symptoms and beyond the recommended 10-day isolation period.

All of the vaccines now available, he said, “are very good.” But Webb said although immunizations are the most important development in the battle against the coronavirus, other tools must continue to be employed at least through the spring and early summer.

“We need to stay the course and get all the way to the finish line by continuing to follow the social restrictions and the other layers of protection until our case counts and our numbers of vaccinated individuals are at a point where we again can safely pass the baton from those things we’re all tired of, to immunity,” he said.

Utah reports 549 new coronavirus cases and five additional deaths

The Utah Department of Health reported 549 new cases of COVID-19 Friday, along with five additional deaths from the virus. There’s been a total of 373,868 positive coronavirus cases in the state since the pandemic began a year ago.

Nearly 817,000 Utahns have received at least one dose of vaccine, a daily increase of 31,411.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 543 per day, and 6.601 Utahns have been tested and another 16,934 tests for the virus conducted since Thursday. The rolling seven-day average for the percent of positive tests is 4.6% when all tests are counted, and 9.8% when multiple tests by an individual within 90 days are excluded.

Currently, 203 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah.

The state’s death toll is at 1,970, with the five new deaths reported Friday. Those deaths, which include one that occurred before Feb. 12, are:

• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at the time of death.

• A Cache County man, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

• A Utah County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

• A Cache County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.

• A Weber County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.