SALT LAKE CITY — Utah healthcare company executives called on state leaders Friday to require masks as intensive care unit bed space dwindles amid a sustained surge in coronavirus cases.
The newest plea came one day after Republican Gov. Gary Herbert said he will require masks in schools as they reopen in the fall, but stopped short of a statewide mandate.
“The really simple part of the equation has always been wearing a mask,” said Dr. Thomas Miller, chief medical officer at University of Utah Health. “We wear a mask to protect our family, we wear a mask to protect vulnerable members of our community. . . The mask is really our best medicine right now along with physical distancing and hand hygiene."
Hospital leaders from three companies warned that their beds are filling up and they are fearing an onslaught that will become overwhelming.
About 67% of the state's intensive care unit beds were occupied as of Friday, up from 59% in mid-June, state health department figures show.
Utah has reported more than 28,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 207 confirmed deaths since the pandemic began. Case counts have more than doubled since mid-May when state leaders allowed some businesses to reopen, including the most confirmed cases in a single day Friday, 867.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
"It’s a little difficult for me to understand as a physician who sees firsthand the toll this virus is taking on our state’s health systems why as a state we haven’t taken action," Miller said.
More than 20 states have required some form of mask-wearing statewide to prevent the spread of the virus. Several conservative-leaning states have implemented statewide measures, including Texas, Kansas and West Virginia.
Herbert has instead encouraged voluntary compliance statewide and instructs counties and cities to request his permission if they think a mask mandate is necessary. He has approved them in and around Salt Lake City, as well as around popular tourist destinations such as Summit and Grand counties and the city of Springdale.
That patchwork approach leads to confusion on an important topic, said Dr. Mark Briesacher, chief physician executive at Intermountain Healthcare.
Herbert's decision comes after Republican legislative leaders, House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President J. Stuart Adams voiced their opposition to a mandate.
Herbert has also received sharp criticism when even limited mandates were implemented as many staunch mask opponents have said requiring face coverings violates personal liberties. A rural county commissioner last month compared Herbert to Adolf Hitler in a social media post after he gave approval to two counties to mandate masks.
Herbert set an Aug. 1 deadline for the state to slow the spread of the disease, and indicated he may reconsider a mask requirement then.
The pleas Friday to mandate masks add to mounting pressure from healthcare officials. The Utah Hospital Association previously sent a letter to legislative leadership calling the recent spike’s impact on hospitals and health care professionals “unsustainable.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
If everyone started wearing masks and doing better with social distancing, the state's case count could decrease in two weeks, said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases specialist with Intermountain Healthcare. If that doesn't happen, Stenehjem said it's going to be difficult to allow children to go back to school full time in August.