ROY, Utah — New data from Utah's Department of Health shows that no place in the state is now considered a "high risk" for COVID-19 transmission.
On Thursday, Beaver and Emery counties moved to a "moderate" transmission level for COVID-19. It means that virus cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations have dropped to certain thresholds. Counties that move out of a high transmission index can also loosen some health restrictions on gatherings. Masks are still mandated statewide, at least until April 10 as a result of the "COVID-19 endgame" law.
At his weekly briefing on Utah's response to the pandemic, Governor Spencer Cox announced that more than 500,000 people in the state have now been fully vaccinated. More doses of COVID-19 vaccine will arrive next week, allowing local health departments to inoculate more people.
"We’ve known from the very beginning that vaccines are the quickest way to end this pandemic and while we still don’t have enough for everyone, we encourage people to continue to wear masks until everyone gets an opportunity to get that vaccine," the governor told reporters.
Cases and hospitalizations continue to decline across Utah, said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn. But Utah's Department of Health is starting to document what are called "breakthrough illnesses." Those are people who get COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. So far, she said, 96 cases have been recorded.
But out of more than 500,000 people, the "breakthrough illnesses" represents less than .02% of all vaccinated people. Dr. Dunn said she did not believe it undermines the overall effectiveness of the vaccine.
"There is some concern, of course, with the variants that will be decreased effectiveness among the vaccines. But they’re still very effective vaccines, which is fantastic," she said. "So we’re not concerned the vaccines will decrease effectiveness that we have to change our public health strategy."
Utah is already beginning to ease some restrictions as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations decline — to a point. FOX 13 first reported on Thursday of a memo sent to state employees notifying them that Gov. Cox has opted to keep a mask mandate in place for state facilities until May 31. That would apply to places like Utah's Capitol Hill, state-run liquor stores, the DMV and driver license offices. People who visit those facilities may also be required to wear a face covering.
That is despite his signing of the "endgame" law that lifts the mask mandate for the public on April 10. The governor defended the move when asked about it by FOX 13.
"We want to make sure our employees have an opportunity to get that vaccine before we take the masks away in those workplaces," he said. "So we anticipate by the end of may everyone will have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated and at that point we won’t require masks for our employees."
The governor also encouraged private businesses to continue to require masks as a way to protect their employees. He has been critical of the "endgame" bill, but signed it because he struck a deal with members of the Utah State Legislature who wanted to lift the mask mandate immediately.
Gov. Cox on Thursday also announced that despite pushback and pleas from some groups, he will not lift the mask mandate in K-12 schools. Conservative groups are planning protests across the state on April 10 to demand the governor repeal the school mandate. The "endgame" law allows the mask mandate to remain in schools. It also allows county governments to issue their own and does not prohibit private businesses from requiring masks.
"We don’t want to have any of these mandates one day longer than is absolutely necessary," the governor said. "But it is still necessary right now so we can keep kids in school, keep the transmission of the virus low."