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Utah officials urged to approve K-12 mask mandates

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(Utah News Connection) As the Delta variant drives a growing number COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in Utah, particularly among young adults and children, officials are being asked to reinstate a mask requirement for all K-12 schools.

After flattening out over the past eight months, state health officials say the Utah daily new-case average is almost 1,000, and most new infections are among the unvaccinated.

Moe Hickey, executive director of Utah Voices for Children, said with no vaccine available for kids under age 12, returning to school without a mask will leave them vulnerable.

"We should be adjusting as new data becomes available," Hickey urged. "And when the 'endgame' bill was passed, our caseloads were heading in the right direction, our hospitalization was heading in the right direction and the vaccine had become available. The new data is our caseloads have gone higher, our hospitalizations are going higher."

Utah legislators passed the so-called "Endgame" bill in March, which took the authority away from school districts to put mask requirements in place. Only County Councils in Utah can vote, based on a local health department request, to require masks in local schools.

Currently, 53% of all Utah residents are fully vaccinated, but Hickey pointed out the number takes a steep drop among younger people.

"[In] terms of vaccination rates for our K-12 population, we're in the 20 [percent] range," Hickey noted. "And that's not going to provide the safety that we need at the moment, until we get those numbers higher and a vaccine becomes available for 12 and under."

Hickey emphasized Voices for Utah Children's mask request is not political, but is based on the latest guidelines from Utah pediatricians, and a set of interim guidelines published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in July.

"We've learned a lot, and what we're learning is that masks definitely had a positive effect on the transmission rates," Hickey asserted. "We're following data and science."

He added to reinstate the mask requirement for all K-12 schools, the Utah Legislature would have to call for a Special Session, and none is planned at the State Capitol.