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Unvaccinated People Are Driving Utah’s Hospitalization Rate Up And Gov. Spencer Cox Says It’s Affecting Everyone

A photo of Gov. Spencer Cox at a podium speaking at a press conference.
Kristin Murphy
Deseret News
As Utah’s COVID-19 cases surge once again, hospitals are filling up, but with fewer staff than they had during the last winter spike.

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Gov. Spencer Cox said Tuesday, Utah health officials in July were projecting the state’s cases would reach close to 1,200 a day, driven largely by a combination of the highly contagious Delta variant and a large portion of the population still unvaccinated.

Those predictions are looking more likely as the state is now averaging 877 cases per day — more than double the average in early July — hospitals are once again filling up and more younger people are dying from the disease.

“This last winter, we experienced a real heavy blow to our economy, to our health, to our way of life,” said Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson during a press conference Tuesday. “We do not want to go back to those days. And everybody who is unvaccinated is part of the problem, the reason we’re here today.”

As of Tuesday, there were 395 people hospitalized with COVID-19. While that number is lower than it was in the surge last winter, it has put hospitals at a breaking point, said Greg Bell, president of the Utah Hospital Association.

The pandemic wore out many healthcare workers, he said. Many have quit or retired, exacerbating staffing shortages for ICU beds. That’s causing delays to important surgeries and limiting Utah hospitals’ ability to treat out-of-state patients.

Don’t Expect Mandates

Both Cox and Henderson expressed frustration over the current situation in Utah, but said their hands are tied when it comes to issuing statewide mask or vaccine requirements, nor would they make a difference.

People who are unwilling to get the vaccine are unlikely to follow public health restrictions, Cox said, and nothing he can do will convince them of the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently recommended that even vaccinated people should start wearing masks indoors. Cox said he’s grateful there are people willing to still do that, but he said he isn’t sure if he’s one of them.

“I'm really tired,” he said. “I'm really done with it and I'm not real excited to have to sacrifice to protect someone who doesn't seem to care.”

Henderson instead urged private businesses and doctors to do what they can. She said she is behind any business that requires its employees to be vaccinated. She also urged doctors who don’t already offer vaccines at their clinics to do so, and to reach out to their unvaccinated patients to persuade them to get the shot.

Still, Cox said the state has not totally given up on its vaccine drive. He said the Utah Department of Health is identifying COVID hotspots and bringing in mobile clinics, largely to vaccinate people who may still be on the fence.

He noted 27,000 Utahns got the vaccine in the last week, suggesting some progress is still being made.

COVID-19 and Schools

Many public school districts in Utah are starting up over the next few weeks. New guidance from the Utah Department of Health encourages everyone over 12 years old to get vaccinated and recommends all teachers and students wear masks indoors.

Cox said schools will probably see the same kinds of disruptions they did last year, but kids who are fully vaccinated won’t have to quarantine, miss out on practice, games or other extracurricular activities.

The recommendations also state students exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 can continue coming to class if both parties were wearing a mask at the time, if they have tested positive in the last 90 days — due to the presence of antibodies — or if they were wearing a high quality mask — an N95 or KN95 mask.

For children under 12 years old, who are still not eligible for the vaccine, Cox acknowledged parents face a more difficult decision.

“This is not a transaction without consequences,” he said. “Every single kindergarten and first grade teacher I talk to, even those that believe in masks and those that believe in vaccinations, will tell you that there is an impact on the development of young children by wearing masks in schools, that their ability to read, their verbal and cognitive skills were slowed down by wearing those masks.”

He said parents will have to weigh the risks, but one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from young children is for them to wear an N95 or KN95 mask. He noted it’s unclear how effective cloth masks are against the Delta variant, but said the state will provide a KN95 mask to every child that wants one.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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