Even though Utah’s statewide mask mandate ends Saturday, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases doctor said face coverings along with vaccinations against COVID-19 remain key to staying safe from the deadly virus.

But Dr. Kristin Dascomb stopped short of saying the mask mandate should continue during a virtual news conference Friday. Intermountain Healthcare is one of many entities that will still require masks, a list that includes Salt Lake City as well as in state and some local government buildings.

“Intermountain specifically isn’t as much involved in the politics of all this. I can say from a scientific standpoint that we have really good evidence that mask mandates from governmental entities work to reduce case counts, to control virus in public spaces and to maintain the health of the population,” Dascomb said.

“So is it an advisable thing to do when transmission is still occurring? The answer is yes,” she said. “But to pass judgment one way or the other is probably not my place. I will say that we will continue to do that in our businesses to maintain our patients’ safety and our caregivers’ safety as well.”

The head of the Utah Department of Health called on Utahns to keep wearing masks in public.

“Until more people have a chance to get vaccinated, we urge people to continue to wear masks in public places and around those who haven’t been vaccinated. We’ve come so far and are so close to returning to normal. We ask for your patience and cooperation a little while longer,” said Richard Saunders, the department’s executive director.

Face coverings must still be worn in K-12 schools through June 15 — and in gatherings of 50 or more people when social distancing is not possible until Utah has received 1.63 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, likely in mid-May, as long as case counts and hospitalization rates remain low, the state health department noted.

Those thresholds are part of the same new law passed by the Utah Legislature that ended the mask mandate put in place by then-Gov. Gary Herbert last November, and require all COVID-19 restrictions be lifted once they’re met, except for requiring masks in schools.

Until then, however, local governments can impose their own mask mandates. Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said Wednesday the mask mandate will continue in Utah’s capital city, later clarifying where they must be worn. And Grand County officials said a mask mandate there will remain.

At Mendenhall’s announcement of a citywide mask mandate, Dr. Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer for University of Utah Health, said masks helped limit flu and respiratory syncytial virus cases this past year. Instead of hospitals seeing an onslaught of patients with those diseases, he said just over a dozen were admitted with flu and none with RSV.

“We know masks work,” Vinik said, offering protection from the virus to others as well as the wearer. “It’s not just a personal decision for you to wear a mask. It’s also incumbent upon on the people around you, who care for you and care for the community, to also wear a mask” to limit transmission.

He said it could be early to late summer before enough Utahns are either fully vaccinated or have had the virus to stall the spread of COVID-19 through herd immunity. Wearing masks between now and then, Vinik said, can limit the loss of life.

“It just makes sense. Please, please everybody, continue to wear your mask,” he said. “If not for yourself, for all of those who are around you.”

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 44% of Utahns want the statewide mask mandate to continue, while more than half are split between believing the date set by lawmakers is reasonable, that it should have been sooner, or that the requirement should never have been imposed.

Poll: Utahns split over Saturday’s end to statewide mask mandate

Dascomb said the state is doing well in its battle against the coronavirus.

“There’s always that concern in the pit of a scientist’s stomach,” she said, about the fast-spreading variants of the virus that are causing new surges in other countries as well as in some states, such as Michigan. That could happen in Utah, where some new strains have already been identified, she said.

“While I do feel optimistic and I’m going to keep that optimism, there is that concern that we have to maintain our vigilance and keep going with our vaccinations to stay safe over time,” Dascomb said, as well as wear masks even after being vaccinated, since it is still not certain whether someone whose had a shot can still spread the virus.

Why does poll show ‘dramatic’ surge in optimism among Utahns about COVID-19?

She said while case counts are decreasing, the state is still seeing around 400 new cases a day.

“We still have to be careful when we’re out there,” the doctor said, adding, ”There’s still a really good reason to keep masking and stay safe.”

Daily COVID-19 case counts

Friday, the state health department reported 444 new COVID-19 cases and nine additional deaths from the virus in Utah. That brings the case count in Utah since the pandemic began more than a year ago to 389,353.

To date, 1,650,850 total vaccine doses have been administered in the state, a daily increase of 46,995.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 402 per day, and 5,264 additional Utahns have taken a COVID-19 test since Thursday while 12,293 tests were recorded. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests at 3.4% when all results are included, and 7% when multiple tests by an individual in the past 90 days are excluded.

Currently, 140 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, and total hospitalizations have reached 15,728. 

Utah’s death toll from the virus is at 2,157, with the nine additional deaths reported Friday and the retraction of a death reported in February of a Salt Lake County woman between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized when she died. The nine additional deaths, including eight that occurred before March 18, are:

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

• A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

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

• A Davis County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• A Davis County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

• A Salt Lake County woman, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized at time of death.

• A Cache County man, older than 85, not hospitalized at time of death.

• A Salt Lake County man, older than 85, not hospitalized at time of death.

• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized at time of death.