SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox cast doubt on the efficacy of mask-wearing Tuesday as health leaders made some of their most impassioned pleas yet for state residents to mask up and get vaccinated.
Cox, a Republican, said his administration is encouraging people to wear masks but said it is unclear whether they are effective against the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus.
“Masks are not as effective as most of the pro-mask crowd are arguing,” Cox told reporters at a news conference. “We know that they’re just not.”
Cox offered no specific evidence to support his assertion, and his comments contradicted public health experts as well as statements Utah’s state epidemiologist Dr. Michelle Hofmann made a few minutes earlier earlier at the same news conference. State hospital leaders made emotional pleas for vaccinations and universal masking to prevent the state’s ongoing COVID-19 surge.
“There will be enduring harm to our children and generations to come if we do not stop the divisiveness around the things we know work like masks and vaccines,” Hofmann said. “We know the path to healing is the end of this pandemic, and it hasn’t ended yet even if we want to pretend it has.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the delta variant of the coronavirus is fueling infection surges. The CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.
Hofmann said COVID-19 cases among school-aged children in Utah are 3.5 times higher than they were at the beginning of last school year, when masks were required, and that 39,000 children are projected to test positive for COVID-19 in September.
The governor has previously urged state residents to wear masks and has defended his administration’s decision to mandate masks in schools last year against parent protests.
Under a new state law, school mask mandates this school year are now banned, though students can wear face coverings if they or their parents choose.
Local health departments can issue a mask requirement for schools, but only with the support from elected county leaders, but some have been vocal in their opposition.
Grand County School District in southeastern Utah started the school year with a 30-day mask mandate for K-6 students, and Summit County has said it will require masks for children in elementary schools if infection rates go above 2%.
Vaccines are only available to those 12 and older.
Since June 1, hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients has increased by 342% and the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs has increased by 330%, according to state data.
About 61% of Utah residents ages 12 and older were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday, state data shows. Utah reported seven new deaths from COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 2,634.
Marc Harrison, president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare, began his statements by explaining that he was in remission from an incurable blood cancer and immunocompromised, putting himself at risk by being at the governor’s briefing.
“I would normally avoid a group like this, but I’m here today because what we’re talking about is so important,” Harrison said. “By the way I hope that all of you who aren’t wearing masks aren’t carrying the delta variant because if you are, you could kill me.”
About half of the people inside the briefing room remained unmasked following Harrison’s comments, including Cox and Lt. Gov Deidre Henderson.
Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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