Utah Governor Spencer Cox disputed remarks on masking made by state health leaders, questioning masks’ effectiveness against the coronavirus’s Delta variant during a news conference Tuesday where the leaders also spoke, the Associated Press reported.
“Masks are not as effective as most of the pro-mask crowd are arguing,” the Republican governor told reporters, without citing evidence. “We know that they’re just not.”
Before his remark, Utah’s state epidemiologist, Dr. Michelle Hofmann, had said, “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. 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.”
Leaders at state hospitals also spoke and became emotional while begging people to get vaccinated and arguing for universal masking amid the state’s COVID-19 surge, the AP said.
Cox has previously said state residents should wear masks, and his administration mandated masks in schools last year, despite protests from some parents. However, a new state law prevents schools from imposing mask mandates, leaving the decision up to a child or the parents.
For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.
Cox said Tuesday his administration is encouraging people to wear masks, but his comments contradicted public health experts.
In July, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the Delta variant 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 coronavirus 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 the virus in September.
The governor has defended his administration’s decision to mandate masks in schools last year. Under the new state law, local health departments can issue a mask requirement for schools, but only with the support from elected county leaders, and 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 percent.
Vaccines are only available to those 12 and older.
Since June 1, hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients have increased by 342 percent, and the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs has increased by 330 percent, according to state data.
About 61 percent 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 Lieutenant Governor Deidre Henderson.