Don’t look for Utah to impose another mask mandate or other restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 despite a rise in cases spurred by the new delta variant of the virus, Gov. Spencer Cox said, although the state may offer incentives to encourage more vaccinations.

“Absolutely not. We’re pleading for a return to sanity and asking people to get their vaccines,” the governor said Thursday when asked about the possibility of new restrictions during his regular COVID-19 briefing at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City.

“It won’t make a difference. It just won’t. We’re not doing that. Again, we have the answer to all of this and the answer isn’t restrictions. The answer isn’t to destroy people’s jobs. The answer isn’t to force people to wear masks. The answer is to get vaccinated,” Cox said.

Utahns are falling short of 70% July 4 vaccination goal — and the governor says that’s a concern

This week, Los Angeles County joined the World Health Organization in calling for everyone, even the vaccinated, to wear masks indoors as protection against the new highly contagious and likely more virulent delta variant of the virus that raged through India and has been found in Utah and the rest of the United States.

As of Thursday, the Utah Department of Health reported 1,108 cases of the delta variant already have been identified in the state, nearly 10 times as many cases as in mid-June. The delta variant was first seen locally in April, apparently brought to the state by individuals who had traveled from India.

New COVID-19 delta variant expected to dominate in Utah

Doctor chooses to keep mask

Dr. Kencee Graves, University of Utah Health associate chief medical officer for inpatient health, said there is more of the delta variant in Utah than there is in Los Angeles, where masks are recommended. Graves she is wearing a mask despite being vaccinated since December “because I want everyone around me to feel safe.”

While the governor said he won’t wear a mask even with the delta variant circulating, because so-called breakthrough cases of COVID-19 in people who are fully vaccinated are “still remarkably low,” Graves said she’s keeping her mask on.

“I recognize that no one wants to do this. I can’t wait to see people smile. I can’t wait for my kids to go back to school and have their teachers see them,” she said. “I am worried about delta, personally. So I will be masking indoors.”

Graves said the increase in cases is putting a strain on hospitals that are filled with patients who delayed care earlier in the pandemic. Already, she said, there are people waiting for a bed in the intensive care unit and the busy summer trauma season is just getting underway.

Dr. Kencee Graves, associate chief medical officer for inpatient services at University of Utah Health, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 1, 2021. | Rick Egan

Utah is seeing an uptick in COVID-19. The governor said Wednesday’s case count was the highest since March 4, and that the 257 people are currently hospitalized in the state with the virus, a total last reached on Feb. 19, and twice as many as at the end of May.

“Please, please, please don’t make it worse,” Cox said, urging Utahns to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

It’s “demoralizing,” the governor said, to hear about people who thought “we don’t need this vaccine, who believed some sort of crazy conspiracy theory about the vaccine, and who have not gotten vaccinated — who are now dead, or who are now hospitalized or who have long-term effects.”

Dr. Michelle Hofmann, the state health department’s deputy director, said Utah is “clearly in the middle of a spike in cases and it’s really sad to see — and entirely avoidable. It’s no secret who’s driving this surge in cases and hospitalizations. It’s unvaccinated people.”

Hofmann said the state is closing in on the 600 new cases a day models previously forecast and that now suggest the rise will continue, to 1,000 to 1,200 new cases a day. She said COVID-19 outbreaks are behind some of the increases, including at overnight youth camps where not only children but adults are becoming infected.

Dr. Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 1, 2021. | Rick Egan

The four separate outbreaks at camps where children sleep in close quarters despite not wearing masks show what may happen when they return to school in the fall, Hofmann said. Vaccines are currently approved only for children 12 and older.

Cox noted services have had to be reduced at the Utah Division of Motor Vehicles office in South Salt Lake due to a coronavirus outbreak among employees. But there’s the hope that all of the bad news about COVID-19 may spark new interest in vaccinations, he said.

State still talking about vaccine incentives

Utah is one of just under half of the states not offering incentives to residents to get the shots, but the governor, an early supporter of Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery offering cash prizes and college scholarships, said that may yet change.

“Incentives are still on the table,” Cox said. “We continue to have those conversations” with leaders of the Utah Legislature, which added language earlier this year to a bill appropriating federal COVID-19 relief funds banning any spending on vaccine incentives.

That position appears to have softened, with at least some interest in giveaways or discounts in lieu of a lottery. Utah businesses have also been encouraged to provide their employees with incentives to get the vaccine, and many have stepped up, Cox said.

A Utah ‘vaccine lottery’ is out, but state giveaways for getting COVID-19 shots are still being discussed

Still, Utahns shouldn’t need an incentive beyond their health to get the shots, he said.

Utahns aren’t that interested in incentives, according to results of a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. An overwhelming 65% of Utahns who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 say there’s no incentive that would make them more likely to get the shots,

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A list of possible offerings —- being able to use sick time, a local restaurant giving away free food or a drawing for a college scholarship — each only interested just 2% of Utahns polled, and free tickets to a local professional sporting event would persuade only 3%, while 10% suggested there might be something and 16% had no answer.

The same poll conducted June 18-25 for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen found that while just over two-thirds of Utahns say they’ve gotten vaccinated, nearly 30% are still hesitant or will never do so.

The full sample of 1,000 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

More Utahns now believe life will be back to normal within one to two months, 15% compared to 6% in the previous month’s poll, while 17% believe it will take three to six months; 19%, six to 12 months; 12%, one year; and 20%, several years. There were 18% who said they weren’t sure when to expect a return to normalcy.

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