Even though mask mandates in Utah are not likely to return despite the current surge of the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus through the state, doctors say face coverings are needed in addition to getting vaccinated against a disease now spreading faster and stronger than ever before.

The advice comes as the Utah Department of Health reported Thursday there have been 1,096 new cases of COVID-19 and seven additional deaths from the virus. To date, the department said Utah has seen 5,265 breakthrough cases in those who are fully vaccinated, including 63 on Wednesday.

What can Utahns do to slow another surge of COVID-19?

Vaccination may ultimately be the way out of the pandemic, but it’s not enough, Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious diseases doctor at Intermountain Healthcare, said, especially in the face of the new highly contagious variant seen as causing more severe illness than previous versions of the virus.

“It doesn’t take the place of common sense. It doesn’t take the place of masks and social distancing, We still have to do those. We have to do those even more now because we’ve got a much more aggressive virus that goes between people much more easily. Masks do work to prevent that,” Vento said.

“Yes, vaccines work to prevent serious illness,” Vento said, but weren’t expected to stop COVID-19 transmissions even before the delta variant, described as being as contagious as the chickenpox. “Delta is a game-changer. It’s much more infectious.”

Last week, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public indoor settings in COVID-19 hot spots, along with everyone at K-12 schools.

CDC: Fully vaccinated and everyone in K-12 schools should be masked

The reversal of a previous recommendation that those who are fully vaccinated — meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose — no longer needed to mask up came after a study showing the delta variant is infecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated people with similar amounts of virus.

While nearly all COVID-19 cases, as well as hospitalizations and deaths from the virus, continue to occur in the unvaccinated, the study suggests that the delta variant is making it easier for those who have gotten the shots to spread the virus via a breakthrough case, even if they have no symptoms.

Utah leaders are counting on vaccines, widely available to anyone 12 and older, to control the pandemic. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature ended a statewide mask mandate and other restrictions, including requiring masks in schools, then limited the ability other entities to take action.

No special sessions are planned to deal with the pandemic, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told the Deseret News recently, saying he’s “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.”

Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday he doesn’t believe additional restrictions “would make a significant difference” even if they could be implemented by his administration. The governor expressed confidence that lawmakers will get involved if needed and that he supports “the Legislature using their authority as they see fit.”

He made it clear Utah won’t be joining New York City in requiring vaccinations to eat inside restaurants and participate in other activities. However, at the same news conference, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson assured businesses they’ll have the backing of her and Cox if they mandate employees get the shots.

Utahns won’t be forced to get COVID-19 vaccine, but will face the consequences, governor says

Another Republican governor, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, said the same day that he regrets supporting his state’s ban on mask mandates and has called lawmakers there into special session to allow school district to impose the requirement if they choose.

Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, University of Utah Health Division of Infectious Diseases chief, also said Utahns need to be wearing mask while transmission rates remain high, especially given the state’s vaccination rate. Less than half of all Utahns, 46.6%, are fully vaccinated, compared to about 50% nationally.

I can’t tell the politicians what to do. But I think we’re going to be in trouble,” Swaminathan said, to the extent that more Utahns aren’t getting the shots and not voluntarily wearing masks in public places, contributing to the spread of the virus.

I haven’t taken my mask off in indoor places where there are a lot of other people, period. I think that if you go into an indoor place in Utah without a mask, you’re at risk of getting infected because mask usage is so low,” he said, a situation that may end up much worse for someone who isn’t vaccinated.

Swaminathan said he wears a mask not just to keep from getting COVID-19 himself, but also to ensure he doesn’t spread the virus to his patients. He warned anyone who is not vaccinated and not wearing a mask can count on catching the virus.

“I think that if you’re not vaccinated, you’re going to get it and not only are you going to get it, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to get sick,” Swaminathan said, unlike the asymptomatic or mild cases someone who is vaccinated can expect.

He said he believes the delta variant “spreads faster and it gets you sick quicker. And it may be more likely to kill you.” That is still being studied, although an internal CDC report said “the delta variant may cause more severe disease” than the original virus, citing overseas studies showing higher odds of hospitalization and death.

Among Utah’s 5,265 breakthrough COVID-19 cases, just 328 resulted in hospitalizations and 18 in deaths, just a fraction of less than 1% of state totals. Utah has seen 437,585 cases of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, along with 18,867 hospitalizations and 2,486 deaths.

State health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said the agency is working on a risk analysis of how likely unvaccinated Utahns are to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19 that will be updated daily. Hudachko said it should begin appearing on the state coronavirus dashboard by early next week.

Breakthrough cases are not driving the surge in cases right now,” he said, adding there’s been too much focus on the number of cases in the fully vaccinated, even though “the driver of the pandemic right now is unvaccinated people.”

The state health department has not adopted the CDC guidelines on masks for the fully vaccinated, but it is not discouraging it, either.

“We haven’t recommended that at this point but we’re certainly aware that recommendation is out there,” Hudachko said. “If that’s an individual who wants to make that decision for themselves to feel safe, that’s certainly a decision they should feel comfortable making.”

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers

With the 1,096 new cases reported Thursday, the rolling seven-day average for positive tests in Utah is 905 per day.

There have been 7,283 people tested and 11,965 conducted for the virus since Wednesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity is 10.6% when all test results are included, and 15% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

A total of 3,057,979 vaccine doses have been administered in Utah, a daily increase of 7,653.

Currently, 395 people are hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. The state’s toll from the virus is now at 2,486 with the seven deaths reported Thursday:

• A Box Elder County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.

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

• A Box Elder County man, between 25 and 44, hospitalized at time of death.

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• A Salt Lake County woman, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.

• A Washington County man, between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.

• A Utah County woman, older than 85, hospitalized at time of death.

• A Cache County man, older than 85, hospitalized at time of death.

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