Now that the dominant delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is considered as contagious as chicken pox, spread just as easily by the fully vaccinated as those who aren’t, will Utah follow the federal government’s lead and take additional steps to control rising case counts?
Not yet, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said Friday, shortly before the Utah Department of Health reported 1,211 new COVID-19 cases in the state, even more than the previous day’s total marking the highest case count since mid-February.
Adams questioned the effectiveness of President Joe Biden’s new mandate that all federal employees as well as members of the military must either be fully vaccinated against the virus or submit to regular testing and face restrictions on the job.
“I’m a big advocate for the vaccine. I’m not a big fan of mandates. I think sometimes there’s more pushback on a mandate than there is positive reception to it,” he said, adding that “we just don’t want to push people away, push them into a corner where they won’t get the vaccine.”
The Senate president also dismissed Biden’s push for state and local governments to offer residents $100 as an incentive to get the shots. Although Gov. Spencer Cox has expressed enthusiasm for vaccine incentives, leaders of the GOP-controlled state Legislature have shown little interest.
Biden’s proposed incentive, which he said was used by a grocery store chain to boost employee vaccinations from 50% to 75%, is no exception. Adams said legislative leaders have monitored the incentives now offered by most other states but their success in boosting vaccination rates has been limited.
“The $100, I’m just not sure that’s going to make a big difference,” he said. “This variant is something that’s moving rapidly, and I think we take every effort we can to try to deal with it. But my hope is people would go ahead and get vaccinated regardless of a mandate or a bonus.”
The governor has not commented on the Biden administration’s announcement, made Thursday. Previously, Cox has rejected re-imposing a statewide mask mandate or other restrictions, saying “it won’t make a difference. It just won’t. We’re not doing that.”
There are no plans for a special legislative session to deal with the pandemic, Adams said.
Because state lawmakers earlier this year limited the powers of other government entities to impose virus-related restrictions, he said that takes mandating masks in public schools off the table along with other issues, at least until the 2022 session starts in January. But Adams said that could change if Utah’s situation continues to worsen.
‘More we can be doing’
Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said lawmakers need to be taking action now to slow the spread of COVID-19, including allowing school districts to decide if masks should be mandated in light of a new recommendation from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said this week masks should be worn by all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status. Dr. Angela Dunn, head of the Salt Lake County Health Department, had already said children too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19 because they’re under 12 should wear masks at school.
But Dunn, who had helped lead Utah’s coronavirus response as state epidemiologist before stepping down last spring to take the county post, said any attempt to make masks mandatory when the new school year starts “is really futile” because of legislative opposition.
“There’s a heck of a lot more we can be doing,” King said, calling it “a mistake” for lawmakers to have limited the powers of other entities to react to the virus. He said it “smacked of the presumptuous of saying we know better” than public health experts advising state and local officials.
Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider, told reporters during a virtual news conference that he’s concerned about the “disturbing trend” that’s filling hospital beds.
The CDC also recommended this week that all Americans living in COVID-19 hot spots wear masks indoors in public even if they are fully vaccinated. The delta variant is seen as more likely to cause breakthrough cases in people who’ve gotten the shots that may be less severe but are still boosting the spread of the virus.
Stenehjem said he and his family are wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings and testing for the virus.
He said when Utahns were doing the same last fall, the state saw few, if any, serious cases of flu or RSV, that respiratory syncytial virus that can hit young children hard. Stenehjem said there have already been some RSV cases and more are expected this fall without more masking and social distancing.
When it comes to getting more Utahns vaccinated against COVID-19, the doctor pointed out both incentives and mandates have been used successfully for flu shots. Such “carrot and stick” approaches, he said, “are strategies that work. They increase the number of people vaccinated in a group.”
Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers
Utah has now had a total of 432,467 positive cases of the virus with the 1,211 new cases reported Friday. There have been more than 3 million doses of vaccine administered in the state, a daily increase of 7,389 and just over 46% of all Utahns are now fully vaccinated, meaning its been two weeks or more since their final dose.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 755 per day, and 7,589 people have been tested and 12,646 tests conducted since Thursday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity is 10.4% when all results are included and 14.7% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
Currently, 351 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19, and the state’s death toll is at 2,451 with an additional death reported Friday, a Salt Lake County woman between 65-84 who was not hospitalized at the time of her death.