The Utah County Commission discussed Wednesday the possibility of a mask mandate to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as hospitalization rates and positive case numbers in Utah County and statewide continue to climb, and will likely spike after the holiday weekend.
The topic was discussed during a work session Wednesday where health officials gave updates on hospital capacities and case numbers. Since Wednesday’s meeting was a work session and not a regular meeting, the commission did not vote on, or consider, any particular proposal.
Tracy Hill, chief medical officer of Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, told the commissioners that, in the beginning weeks of the pandemic, “we initially did very well in Utah County,” adding that cases in the county began to surge in April to about 50 cases a day but went down to 25-30 per day in May.
“Since that time, as we’re all aware, from Memorial Day forth, we’ve been rapidly on the ascent,” the chief medical officer said. “We’re now averaging nearly 100 new positive-testing individuals a day. And with that, our hospitalizations … have been rising.”
Based on Intermountain Healthcare (IHC) projections, Hill said that, if numbers continue to rise into August, “we will be stretching our capacity to care for these folks.”
“Right now, we are in pretty good shape,” he said. “That said, if this surge continues on the rate that we’re currently on, we could be ... overwhelmed.”
IHC infectious disease physician Edward Stenhjem said that if IHC hospitals continue to see spikes in positive cases and hospitalizations, the medical facilities will be “activating our surge plans.” The first phase of the surge plans would be to convert medical surgical hospital beds into ICU units and move patients around to different medical facilities to even out capacity throughout the state.
“So what we have to do now is we have to do now is we have to change something,” said Stenhjem. “And if we don’t change something, we’re going to be in a position where we can’t care for our individuals, whether it be in Utah County or in Salt Lake County or wherever we serve our patients here. That’s just the reality of it.”
Though he said it wasn’t his place to call for a mask mandate, Stenhjem spoke about the importance of wearing masks in public to prevent the virus from spreading and said “the data isn’t subtle” on the efficacy and safety of surgical masks.
“We have good data and scientific literature to show that there’s reduced transmission and reduced potential chance of getting infection when wearing masks,” the infectious disease expert said. “This isn’t open for debate in the medical literature. Masks prevent infection.”
Stenhjem added that cloth masks, while not as effective as surgical masks, are safe to use and prevent the spread of respiratory viruses.
“I’m one of those that is really struggling with this mask concept,” Commissioner Bill Lee said. “And I’ll be open about it and say that. I am on so many different levels. And I don’t think that the science is necessarily proven. I think that we still need a lot of peer review that needs to go through with some data to it.”
Commissioner Tanner Ainge said it sounded “like the medical community is pretty clear on masks” but asked Stenhjem to address the concern that masks could increase CO2 intake or make it harder to breathe.
“These masks have been worn for decades,” Stenhjem responded. “Our surgeons who do brain surgery wear these masks for 12 hours at a time as they’re operating on people’s brains. They’re not falling over from lack of oxygen. They’re not falling over from increasing CO2 levels. … There is no data at all that suggests that wearing a mask decreases any kind of oxygen level or increases CO2 level.”
Mike Kennedy, a physician and former Republican state representative, said a face mask mandate is “one of those are tools that, as a county commission, as political leaders, you ought to be considering.”
Kennedy said the commissioners should consider whether residents would voluntarily wear masks if encouraged by county leaders to do so, or if a mandate would be necessary.
“Do you need to put a force of mandate behind it?” Kennedy said. “If so, my suggestion to you is to seriously consider enforcement.”
Commissioner Nathan Ivie said he encouraged residents to wear masks but didn’t see it as something that should be legally enforced.
“Do I think it’s good, do I think it’s considerate? Yes,” said Ivie. “But I don’t see a reason for us to be compelled legally to engage in that.”
About a half dozen Utah County residents spoke against a mask mandate, including a woman who said she has an autoimmune disease but doesn’t wear a mask or socially distance because she “refuse(s) to live in fear.”
“I have not, other than the first two weeks of this, isolated myself,” she said. “I play tennis five days a week with my friends. Anyways, I’m just saying, please don’t take my agency away. It’s my choice.”
“I would just like to ask: where does this end?” another woman said. “At forced vaccines? Forcing people to not touch their faces? Forcing people to wear gloves at all times and in all places, forcing people to basically live in a bubble?”
The Daily Herald observed on May 23 that, out of 517 Utah County people who went shopping in Utah County, only about 30% were wearing masks.
Gov. Gary Herbert spoke with legislative leadership earlier this week about the possibility of issuing a statewide mask mandate. House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, and Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, both issued statements Wednesday evening opposing a statewide mandate.