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Intermountain doctor: Get vaccinated to slow the spread of COVID-19 variant in schools

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — If we want to slow the spread of the new Delta variant of COVID-19, we need to encourage our friends and families to get vaccinated, because if we don’t, the evolved virus will most certainly spread throughout schools this fall, according to an infectious disease expert at Intermountain Healthcare. 

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem said Friday most of the new cases of COVID-19 in Utah still occur in unvaccinated people. 

“This isn’t rocket science,” he said in a news conference. “The lower the vaccine rate, the higher the number of cases.” 

Vaccine prevents spread in school 

To Stenehjem, if people don’t get vaccinated, it’s going to be a real problem once kids head back to school. 

“If we have children that are unvaccinated, not previously infected, coming into a classroom with other susceptible children with a very, very transmissible virus, you’re going to see this virus transmit in schools,” highlighted Stenehjem. “Then those children are going to take the virus back to their homes and transmit to susceptible parents and susceptible grandparents.” 

Districts have already dealt with closing schools previously when a COVID-19 outbreak occurred. And if kids aren’t vaccinated, Stenehjem noted history will repeat itself–perhaps more severely. 

“We know that if you put 30 people into an enclosed room that you’re going to get transmission,” he said. “This is a different virus than we were dealing with before. So those measures of spacing a desk three feet, increasing air circulation, good focus on hand hygiene by themselves… I’m skeptical those are going to work.”

Even if someone cannot get vaccinated, there is one measure known to protect unvaccinated folks against the virus: masks.

“We know that masking works,” Stenehjem emphasized, adding if he had school-aged children, he’d make sure they wore a mask when they head back to the classroom. 

Allaying fears, understanding frustration

In order to combat the spread of the Delta variant, which CDC research indicates could be as contagious as chickenpox, Stenehjem says the best tool at our disposable is vaccination. The best way to get people to utilize that tool, according to Stenehjem, is to encourage doctors, nurses, community groups, churches, companies and just regular people to keep educating their friends, family and peers about the benefits of being vaccinated. 

“We want people to know this vaccine saves lives. It prevents hospitalizations and it is safe,” he added. “Those conversations need to be had all over our community — in churches, in doctors’ offices, wherever it might be.” 

Additionally, Stenehjem understands some people are hesitant about the vaccine, but those individuals are more likely to listen to the people they trust in their lives. 

“I hear people say, ‘These are new vaccines and haven’t been studied.’ I would push back on that — I can’t think of a vaccine that is more heavily scrutinized than this vaccine,” he said. 

Stenehjem said he understands the frustration over the changing guidelines, but he points out as we learn more, we will continue to adjust. 

“It can be frustrating, to go back and forth,” he said. “I recognize this is hard for the general public, but we are doing the best we can . . . and I guarantee there will be more changes.” 

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How To Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus

COVID-19 coronavirus spreads person to person, similar to the common cold and the flu. So, to prevent it from spreading:

      • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.
      • Don’t touch your face.
      • Wear a mask to protect yourself and others per CDC recommendations.
      • Keep children and those with compromised immune systems away from someone who is coughing or sneezing (in this instance, at least six feet).
      • If there is an outbreak near you, practice social distancing (stay at home, instead of going to the movies, sports events, or other activities).
      • Obtain a flu shot.
      • Seek out the COVID-19 vaccine.

Local resources

KSL Coronavirus Q&A 

Utah’s Coronavirus Information 

Utah State Board of Education

Utah Hospital Association

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Utah Coronavirus Information Line – 1-800-456-7707

National Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Commonly asked questions, World Health Organization

Cases in the United States

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