Utah’s medical community is calling on state officials to mandate wearing face masks in public. In a press conference Friday, representatives from the state’s largest health care systems said they’re concerned about recent spikes in coronavirus case numbers, and worry the state’s hospitals could soon be overrun.
The announcement came just a few hours before the state’s health department reported 867 new cases of COVID-19, the highest single-day increase since the pandemic began.
Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday masks will be required in schools this fall, but he stopped short of a statewide mandate. Health care officials said that won’t be enough to slow the spread of the virus, and ultimately threatens the state’s ability to get the economy back on track.
“We really want our kids to go back to school,” said Tom Miller, chief medical officer at the University of Utah. “We want to go back to work, we want to travel. But we won’t be able to do any of these safely until we get our COVID-19 cases under control.”
Miller said there is still a lot we don’t know about the virus — such as why it can sometimes affect young, otherwise healthy people — but wearing a mask has been proven to decrease transmissions and protect people.
Arlen Jarrett, chief medical officer of Steward Health Care, said the recent growth in case numbers show people aren’t taking the virus seriously, and he doesn’t think the state can avoid filling hospitals.
ICU beds statewide are currently at 72% capacity, though they are considered full and begin to stress the system at 80-85% capacity, said Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive at Intermountain Healthcare. He said hospitals need to reserve some open beds for new critically-ill patients — not just those with COVID-19 — who could come in at any time.
On Thursday, Herbert said that if new daily cases don’t average below 500 by Aug. 1, the state could re-impose stricter social distancing mandates.
“I don’t view this as a political question,” Briesacher said. “This is about people. This is the time to come together, that’s the way that we will get ahead of this.”
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon