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Gov. Herbert on mask mandate: numbers will dictate stronger measures

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has responded to concerns voiced by Utah healthcare leaders on Friday, who said  they are beginning to see another spike in both the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Utah and the number of hospitalizations. 

Via an emailed statement, Gov. Herbert said that if Utah does not quickly see a decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases, he will reassess a state mandate on the wearing of masks.

“From the beginning of the pandemic,” the Governor said on Friday, “I have appreciated the advice from our leaders in the healthcare industry. They are on the front lines of fighting the pandemic and understand as well as anyone the terrible consequences of COVID-19.

“Today we reported a disturbing new record of cases. As I said yesterday, if we cannot quickly bring the number of cases down by the voluntary use of masks and physical distancing we will consider stronger measures, including a mask mandate.”

A new COVID-19 spike

On Friday, the Chief Medical Officers and physicians from Intermountain Healthcare, University of Utah Health, HCA MountainStar Health and Steward Health joined together to call on state leaders to implement a mandatory mask mandate.

The Utah Department of Health reported 867 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, representing a new record high in day-over-day increases for the state.

An infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, said he believes it is unsafe for Utah students to return to school full-time this fall. 

“If we continue to have a rise in cases like we are having currently and are projected to do for at least the next couple weeks, and that rise takes us into August I don’t think it would be safe,” Stenehjem said.

Related: KSL NewsRadio’s Coronavirus Tracker

Dr. Mark Briesacher, Chief Physician Executive at Intermountain Healthcare, says that Utah’s healthcare systems are collectively at 77% ICU capacity. He says that when the systems hit 80-85%, and that can happen very quickly, the state will be in dire straits.

“What we’re seeing happen in Arizona and California will happen in Utah if we don’t take steps today,” University of Utah Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Thomas Miller said.

Mask mandate urged now, not later

All of the doctors present at the news conference expressed concerns that implementing a mask mandate after Gov. Gary Herbert’s August 1 timeline could be detrimental to the health of Utah. 

Briesacher said that while they are grateful for the steps that the governor took yesterday, the situation is rapidly evolving. He said some of those who tested positive this week will quickly end up in their hospitals in the next few days. 

“I don’t think at this point we can avoid maximizing our hospital capacity. It’s clear we’re going to be maxing out our hospitals. I think it’s too late to make that change. We can’t wait until August,” Jarrett said.

“Beds don’t treat people” 

But overwhelming bed space isn’t the only thing the doctors were worried about. The issue, they say, is that there is only a limited number of trained medical personnel who can treat critically ill COVID-19 patients.

“Beds don’t treat people,” Briesacher said. “People treat people.”

“People are working really hard and it can be disheartening to go to work every day and have so many patients to care for knowing that family members can’t visit and then to drive home and see people not wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart.

“We know from our experience in New York that this virus takes a tremendous toll on healthcare workers.” 

Contributing: Simone Seikaly