Multiple Utah County lawmakers criticized state health and education officials on Thursday over the statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools and urged officials to provide greater flexibility for local jurisdictions moving forward.
The school mask mandate, implemented through a Utah Department of Health public health order, ends on June 15. It is separate from the statewide mask mandate that ended on April 10 as the result of an “endgame” bill passed by the Utah State Legislature.
During an Administrative Rules Review Committee meeting on Thursday, lawmakers received an update on the school mask mandate and the plan moving forward for the upcoming school year.
Sydnee Dickson, state superintendent of public instruction for the Utah State Board of Education, said the mask mandate was implemented last year as cases were surging throughout the state in an effort to “focus on prevention.”
“We were trying to keep the spread out of schools,” said Dickson. “So we were trying to separate ourselves from what was happening in the community and making sure that we had protocols to make that safe.”
Michelle Hofmann, deputy director of the state health department, said that state officials needed to be able to “make policy in the face of certainty,” noting that “we didn’t have all of the data at the time that this started” about coronavirus transmission.
“We have uncertainty. But we can use what we have to frame conversations,” said Hofmann, a pediatrician who was named deputy director of the health department in February.
Hofmann told lawmakers on the committee that “at this moment in time, we believe that the masks will support us through the end of the school year” since Utah hasn’t yet achieved “herd immunity” and kids under 16 won’t be eligible for the vaccine until this summer.
“And so, at this moment in time, we still do need to protect the adults around us who have not yet accessed vaccination,” she said. “And masks remain the most effective way to do that, and the least invasive.”
Hofmann’s comments received pushback from multiple lawmakers on the committee, including Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, who asked what would prevent an unvaccinated child from potentially contracting COVID-19 even after herd immunity is reached.
“The answer is nothing,” Bramble said. “This disease, this virus is going to be prevalent in our communities long-term. And all these policies, we started out wanting to bend the curve to be able to manage the cases so that we’re not overwhelming our health care system, recognizing that even when we achieve whatever the definition of herd immunity is, just as we have with flu and other diseases, that you will still be exposed and you can still contract it and you can still die from it.”
Hofmann said the senator was correct that there would always be a risk of contracting the coronavirus, “but the frequency with which it can occur now relative to when we hit herd immunity is different.”
Bramble and Republican Highland Rep. Brady Brammer, co-chair of the committee, pressed the education and health officials to say whether they were aware of any adult in the education system who had not yet been given an opportunity to be vaccinated. The officials said they weren’t personally aware of any such individuals.
“Because you talk about protecting the safety of the adults. And my frustration is, if the vaccines are as effective as we have been led to believe by the CDC and the medical community, then adults that have been vaccinated are not at risk of spreading the virus, nor are they at serious medical risk for contracting a fatal incident with the virus,” the Provo senator said.
According to the CDC, a “growing body of evidence” suggests that fully vaccinated people are less likely to have asymptomatic infection and “potentially less likely” to transmit the virus to others, though “further investigation is ongoing.”
Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, also voiced concern over the statewide K-12 mandate, which he said lacked “flexibility” for local education agencies to accommodate students and parents. He recommended that the state public health order be amended to provide that flexibility.
Committee co-chair Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, said he didn’t have “an issue” with masks in schools, noting that “if masks help slow the spread, it’s probably an abundance of caution, the right thing to do.”
But Anderegg said he did have an issue with how the mask mandate was implemented and argued that state officials were only looking at the issue from a public health perspective without considering the mandate’s implications for the economy, mental health and domestic violence.
“I have to look at multiple data points outside of just public health (as a state lawmaker),” Anderegg said.
Anderegg added that he did not believe the emergency response amendments lawmakers passed earlier this year with Senate Bill 195 went far enough in limiting and defining state emergency powers during a public health crisis and said additional legislation may be needed.
“We need clear definitions as to who’s in charge on local control (issues) between the local health department, the state health department and the school districts. I don’t think that that was resolved under (S.B.) 195,” the Lehi senator said.