Gov. Spencer Cox announced Cache County is moving to “Moderate” in the Utah’s COVID-19 transmission index on Thursday.
The move is coming at a crucial time, according to Cache County Executive David Zook.
“I’m glad to see that we’re moving in this direction, because I feel like the most important thing we can do for our economy and for the mental health of our residents is to get things back to normal as soon as possible,” he said. “I am very concerned about our economy, because we have so many pieces of our economy that are related to people’s ability to gather.”
Tourism in the summer — with the senior citizens who move to the valley and with the draw from art and performances — is a key factor to the economic success of Cache County and was hit particularly hard with cancellations due to the pandemic.
“We need to do all we can to make sure that they survive and are able to get back on their feet,” Zook said. “They employ hundreds of people in our valley, and they bring millions into our economy every year. … I really want to get them up and running as soon as possible.”
There’s a better chance of that happening now than under the “High” transmission risk category, as Cox said “in ‘Moderate,’ there are no restrictions on gatherings as long as everyone wears a mask.”
“Hale Center Theatre in Salt Lake can have their seats full with people wearing masks; we can do that right now,” he said at the briefing. “Theoretically, sports teams now, if they want to, could bring in people and have them sit right next to each other. They couldn’t do concessions in their seats — they would have to do those out where people are spaced — but that can happen right now in all these Moderate counties.”
Local hospitals’ Intensive Care Unit capacity, the 7-day rolling average in cases and test positivity rates are considered each to determine if a county needs to move up or down in terms of transmission risk.
“I think there’s a lot of things playing into this,” said Josh Greer, with the Bear River Health Department. “We’ve seen a constant decline in our numbers of incidence of COVID since the beginning of the year — that’s been going down since before we really started our vaccination process — and so we’ve got those two things really playing in our favor: the decrease in cases and the increase in the number of people that are getting vaccinated.”
This is the first time Cache County’s transmission risk has been downgraded since it was moved to High risk in October. Cache joined Davis, Grand, Salt Lake, Sanpete and Wasatch in the move for a total of 13 “Moderate” counties — “some of which have been in High risk since the transmission risk system began,” Cox said.
“It means 2.2 million Utahns now live in Moderate transmission counties,” the governor said. “At the rate we’re going now, every county in Utah can be in Moderate risk in the next couple of weeks.”
Rich County moved to “Low” transmission risk for the first time since the holiday surge, and Cox said other rural areas are close.
“We’re in a really, really, really great spot,” he said. “I would hate to do something that sets us back when we’re this close. But again, I don’t want these restrictions in place one day longer than is absolutely necessary.”
But the move is not guaranteed, as was pointed out by State Epidemiologist Angela Dunn, as Garfield County was moved to Low risk on Feb. 18 but was announced as a “High transmission risk” area on Thursday.
Health and political officials in Cache County and throughout the state are encouraging continued vigilance on virus-mitigation efforts to prevent something similar happening locally until at least 70% of the population is immune to the virus, at which point herd immunity might start to prevent rapid spread.
Cox said the high number of vaccines available in the state coupled with the low-trending case rates are a good sign things can return to normal by the fall, and Zook agreed.
“We thankfully have a number of community partners who are now helping to provide vaccines, and I would encourage people to take advantage of that opportunity,” Zook said. “The sooner people get vaccinated, the sooner we can reopen completely.”
In the weekly press conference, Dunn added that each of the vaccines is a viable option, and even though the single-dose Johnson & Johnson’s efficacy rate appears to be below both the Pfizer and Moderna options at first glance, it was also tested when the rapid-spreading variants of COVID-19 from Brazil, the United Kingdom and South Africa had been identified. Because vaccines may be less effective against those variants, their transmission during the Johnson & Johnson trials may have pulled its reported efficacy down, so the different vaccines’ reported rates are not “apples to apples” comparisons.
Until the three are compared side-by-side with current data, no conclusions can be made on if one offers superior protection, and physical distancing, staying home when sick and wearing a mask in public will be crucial to maintaining the state’s current trajectory.
Small mask-less gatherings among those who have been vaccinated were also given the go-ahead on Thursday, though large gatherings will still offer more risk until enough people have been vaccinated to make spread more difficult.
“We’re definitely not out of the woods, as everyone keeps saying, and there are a lot of cases out there that can still result in spread,” Dunn said. “Even though a jurisdiction may be a Moderate or Low, or certain restrictions may be lifted officially, we still should be very cautious in our day-to-day lives as individuals.”
There is the potential lawmakers could end the statewide mask mandate in the legislative session, and though Cox agreed “Nobody likes the masks, and nobody likes the government telling them what to do … the data is just really clear on masks that they are instrumental in keeping us safe.”
“I wish we never had to have any of these orders, whatsoever,” he said. “But we also know that, from an economic standpoint, the mask mandate is the least intrusive of all the mandates, and again, allows us to get back to normal quicker, and allows us to do so many more things, allows more people to participate in the economy.”
Though many people have criticized the governor for the mask mandate — some wishing he’d taken a similar stance to South Dakota’s Gov. Kristi Noem — Utah has “one-fourth of the deaths that the Dakotas have, … one-fourth of the deaths that New York and New Jersey have, … (and) one-third of the deaths that Texas has had,” Cox said. “So I think we’re doing it the right way. I really do. And I’m really proud. We haven’t been perfect, but we’ve done a great job.”