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Salt Lake County urges kids under 12 to wear masks when they return to school

(Salt Lake County Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn, left, speaks during a COVID-19 briefing with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson at her side at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 22, 2021. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY – Kids, put your masks back on when you return to school.  That’s the recommendation from the Salt Lake County Health Department as COVID-19 cases continue to climb and vaccination rates have plateaued. 

Health Department Executive Director Dr. Angela Dunn compares the COVID-19 vaccine to vaccinations everyone gets when they’re babies.  She says newborns are too young and too fragile to receive vaccines for pertussis and mumps immediately after they’re born.

“They rely on the people around them to be vaccinated to keep them healthy,” Dunn said.

The state has not met its goal

However, the state has fallen far short of its goal of having enough vaccinated adults to reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

“Our lowest vaccination rate among adults is 20 to 40-year-olds.  Those are the parents of these kids that who are going to be going to school,” Dunn said.  “That means that these kids are actually vulnerable at home and at school when they’re surrounded by a bunch of unvaccinated people.”

Dunn said, if vaccination rates don’t go up, children under the age of 12 should wear masks while indoors when the school year starts.  She said that’s the best way to limit the spread of coronavirus among children who are too young to receive a vaccine.  However, she acknowledges the health department doesn’t have the authority to issue mask mandates.  A newly passed state law allows local health boards to recommend one, but the state legislature can overturn any locally issued mandate.

“It’s very clear that their intent is to not have mask mandates,” Dunn said. 

Some lawmakers tell KSL they believe the best way to prevent the spread of the virus is to increase vaccination.  Senator Todd Weiler said if he were in Dunn’s position, he would also be suggesting masks.

“I understand Dr. Dunn has a job to do, and I think she’s very good at her job, but I have a different job to do,” Weiler says.  “I have to balance her recommendation with all of the other concerns out there.”

Another mandate would create more outcry

Weiler said if they were to issue another mandate, there would be another outcry, similar to what we saw at the end of the 2020-21 school year.  He believes their job as lawmakers is to strike the right balance and find the line between protecting public safety and personal freedom.

“If our goal was that no child would ever get sick, we would have never started public schools.  We would keep every kid home in a bubble,” he said.

The Utah Department of Health says there are 291 people currently hospitalized in Utah due to COVID-19.