Children should wear masks when they return to school not only as protection against COVID-19, but also this year’s “extremely unusual” early appearance of another disease with cold-like symptoms, RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, a pediatrician at Primary Children’s Hospital said Wednesday.
The advice from Dr. Per Gesteland, hospitalist for the University of Utah Health and Intermountain Healthcare children’s hospital in Salt Lake City, follows the decision by Dr. Angela Dunn, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, to mandate masks in county schools for children under 12.
Dunn’s order may be overturned Thursday by the Salt Lake County Council under a new process created by the Utah Legislature that gives county governing bodies and ultimately state lawmakers control over the state’s pandemic response.
“I know this is a contentious and now politically charged topic and that’s somewhat unfortunate,” Gesteland told reporters during a virtual news conference about concerns Utah could see an unprecedented spike in cases of the serious respiratory illnesses that typically sends hundreds of children to the hospital every winter.
The state is already seeing RSV cases after the disease all but disappeared last winter amid pandemic precautions that included wearing masks, social distancing and frequent hand-washing, he said, even as COVID-19 cases are surging, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Gesteland said as a pediatrician and parent of school-age children, “there’s a really strong argument to be made for putting masks on our children as they go back to school. Why is that super-important to me? Well, I don’t want people to get sick and die unnecessarily.”
He warned that children, who cannot yet get vaccinated against COVID-19 until they turn 12, may be getting more sick from the deadly virus and are already filling up hospital beds in parts of the country, where RSV cases are also on the rise.
Gesteland said he’s concerned a similar spike in both COVID-19 and RSV will strain Utah’s health care resources.
“That could be avoided. Masks aren’t perfect but they’re really, besides immunizing children over 12 years of age for COVID-19, masks and social distancing and hand-washing, probably the best tools in our toolbox to slow the spread,” he said, of both COVID-19 and RSV.
“I think it’s most likely going to get worse, potentially substantially worse, before it gets better. And boy, starting off the school year with immediately kicking off a whole bunch of COVID-19 and RSV cases is probably not going to be optimal for successfully keeping our kids in school,” Gesteland said.
He said he’s “a huge proponent of getting kids back into school. But let’s do it in a smart way that keeps us safe and keeps us all healthy.” Masks in schools, which Gesteland said children have learned to tolerate, “are probably one of our best ways to stay safe.”
Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended everyone in K-12 schools mask up against COVID-19 regardless of vaccination status, as well as calling on the fully vaccinated to return to wearing masks in public indoor settings in virus hot spots.
Like COVID-19, RSV can initially seem like a common cold but then infect the lungs, leading to difficulty breathing. RSV is especially tough on the very young, Gesteland said, but can also cause serious illness in adults with asthma, heart issues or other medical conditions.
A test is often needed to determine whether someone has COVID-19 or RSV, he said. Utah is already seeing some patients hospitalized for RSV, including in the intensive care unit, he said, predicting those those numbers are likely to increase.
Utah’s COVID-19 cases up 1,114 with seven more deaths
The state’s total number of COVID-19 cases reached 442,245 on Wednesday, with 1,114 new cases and seven additional deaths reported by the Utah Department of Health.
Nearly 3.1 million vaccine doses have been administered in the state, a daily increase of 6,823. Just 47.1% of all Utahns, and 58.2% of those 12 and older, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning its been two weeks or more since their final dose.
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 812 per day, and 7,532 people were tested and 13,501 tests conducted in Utah since Tuesday. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity at 9.8% when all results are included and 13.7% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
Currently, 389 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. The state’s death toll is 2,518, with the seven additional deaths reported Wednesday. They are:
• A Salt Lake County man, between 25 and 44, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Salt Lake County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Beaver County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized at time of death.
• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
• An Emery County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Juab County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized at time of death.
• A Beaver County woman, between 25 and 44, hospitalized at time of death.