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Utah Gov. Herbert and Dr. Dunn answer questions about new public health orders

FILE -- Gov. Gary Herbert listens to a question as he stands with Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 20, 2020. Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn are scheduled to answer questions about the new state of emergency and public health orders announced for Utah late Sunday night. 

After Utah saw days of record-breaking COVID-19 cases and deaths last week, Gov. Herbert announced Sunday night that the state would implement new restrictions that begin at 1 p.m. on Monday.

 

“To make a real difference in slowing the spread of COVID-19 and turning around the dire situation in our hospitals, we all need to do more,” Herbert said in a statement. 

On Monday, Dr. Dunn said these restrictions and health guidelines were made after gathering data from across the nation and from other countries. 

“I really believe that if every Utahn adheres to the principles that are outlined by Governor Herbert we will start to see a decrease in our cases.”

Utah public health orders and state of emergency

Utah mask mandate

The first major change Herbert announced on Sunday was that the whole state would fall under a mask mandate.  He said this, as well as other new restrictions, came after a week of analysis and consideration following conversations with CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield and White House Coronavirus Task Force Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx.

“Because scientists and medical experts overwhelmingly recommend masks as an effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, I am placing the entire state of Utah under a mask mandate until further notice,” the governor said in his announcement Sunday. 

“We cannot afford to debate this any longer,” the governor said. “Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom.”

Casual gatherings restricted

Herbert also noted that social gatherings of anyone who does not live within the same household would be restricted for the next two weeks. 

“This means many of us may have to cancel plans with extended family and friends,” Herbert said. “This is a sacrifice for all of us. But as we slow the spread it will make all the difference for our overworked healthcare workers, who desperately need our help.”

Herbert also emphasized that state and local authorities will prosecute those who don’t comply and organizers of events could face fines up to $10,000.

Extracurricular activities on hold

One of the last major restrictions announced on Sunday as part of the new public health orders was that all extracurricular activities across Utah schools would be placed on hold for the next two weeks. 

“This is a two-week postponement that will enable us to immediately prioritize testing of student-athletes involved in playoff and championship games,” Gov. Herbert said. “And to put in place a robust system of testing student-athletes involved in other winter sports and activities.” 

This doesn’t apply to high school championship games or practices, as they already follow instructions for COVID-19 testing and limited crowd sizes. However, it does include club sports, city-sponsored sports and other club activities. 

Dr. Dunn said this change to the K-12 schools comes to extracurricular activities at this time because the data shows that’s where transmission is happening.

“Once again, our data is showing that students don’t tend to be infected in the school setting, but rather in the extracurricular setting. So we want to make sure that we can provide a safe environment for students to continuously engage in those extracurricular activities.”

Increase in testing

In addition to restrictions, Herbert also announced that Utah plans to accelerate their testing programs to include those who are asymptomatic as well as students and educators. 

Herbert said the plan is for an eventual workplace testing for people 35 and younger as they are more likely to be asymptomatic. 

“As leaders, we know testing is a critical piece of our response,” said governor-elect Spencer Cox. “While we ask Utahns to do some heavy lifting, we’re also significantly ramping up targeted testing in age groups that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us are frequently asymptomatic.”

Addressing the concern that more testing would lead to more positive cases and a harsher crackdown in the future Gov. Herbert asked Dr. Dunn to clarify what an increase to testing would mean from a public health perspective.

“Currently our percent positivity is over 20%, that means that there are a lot of cases out there who don’t even know COVID. [That means] they’re out there coming into close contact with other individuals and potentially spreading the virus,” Dunn said.

“Initially, when when we roll out a lot of testing all at once we will likely find additional cases. But over the coming weeks and months, that will result in a decrease in the spread and a decrease in cases because individuals who have very mild symptoms, or perhaps no symptoms at all, will know their COVID status and be able to isolate appropriately preventing spread from additional individuals.”

Vaccine distribution

Dr. Dunn said that while it’s been difficult to plan for something that isn’t set in stone, Utah has submitted its plan to distribute a potential vaccine to the CDC a few weeks ago.

“Plans are in place, especially because (Pfizer’s vaccine) needs to be stored at very, very cold temperatures, to get freezers to as many healthcare systems and hospitals as we can so that we can actually take the vaccine and store it appropriately and then distribute it.”