SALT LAKE CITY — Utah may be a few weeks away from lifting longstanding health restrictions put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bill, nicknamed the "COVID-19 endgame," will start terminating public health orders once the state meets certain benchmarks for virus cases, hospitalizations and vaccinations. Right now, the latest figures show that Utah has met two of the three most critical under the law.
"We’re probably three weeks, maybe four weeks away," House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, said in an interview with FOX 13 on Wednesday.
House Bill 294, which ended the statewide mask mandate last week, would also lift restrictions on the size of gatherings and enforced physical distancing. The Utah State Legislature passed the bill earlier this year. While Governor Spencer Cox was somewhat critical of it, but signed it because he negotiated with the legislature over some of its terms, particularly with the mask mandate.
Under the law, health orders start getting terminated once Utah hits a 14-day case rate below 191 per 100,000 people; when ICU hospitalization averages less than 15% specifically for virus patients; and when 1.63 million people receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
On Wednesday, Utah's case rate was 173.4; the ICU rate for COVID patients was 10.1%; and vaccination was at 1.1 million people with prime doses.
"The state is making great progress in meeting the metrics spelled out in HB294. We’ve met the case rate and ICU utilization metrics and continue to make progress toward meeting the prime doses allocated metric as well," the Utah Department of Health said in a statement to FOX 13. "We monitor these metrics closely and will be ready to work with the appropriate elected leaders to adjust course if needed."
It is promising news, but Speaker Wilson still urged caution.
"We’re grateful the news gets better every week in terms of our numbers. But we need to be careful still, there’s members of our community that haven’t had an opportunity to get a vaccine that want one," he said. "We need to be mindful and respectful of those folks until they get that opportunity."
Until more people are vaccinated, the governor and health officials have urged people to continue to wear masks in public settings. Gov. Cox has issued an order requiring face coverings in all state-run facilities like liquor stores, driver license offices and Capitol Hill. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson issued one for all county-owned facilities. Grand County and Salt Lake City have enacted new mask mandates.
Senate Minority Whip Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said it was great news.
"People are getting vaccinated. The response is good. But you still have pockets," she told FOX 13 on Wednesday. "Especially in my district on the west side of Salt Lake City and West Valley City, where the vaccination rates are extremely low."
Sen. Escamilla said in some communities that are particularly low-income and under-served, vaccine rates are as low as 20% compared to other parts of Utah where it is as high as 60%. She is pushing to get vaccine clinics with late night hours or on Sundays in neighborhoods where people often work two or three jobs and can't take time off work to get inoculated.
"It worries me that we feel too relaxed, we may end up with another surge," Sen. Escamilla warned. "I’m glad the numbers continue to look positive."
Meanwhile, the Utah State Legislature is planning a special session next month to spend $1.5 billion in COVID-19 relief money from the federal government. The state as a whole will receive about $8 billion, Speaker Wilson said.
Senate President J. Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said they will likely spend the money on infrastructure projects, including transportation and expanding internet access across the state.
"We’re looking for things that move the needle and maybe have multi-generational impact, things we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise," he told FOX 13.
There is some talk of lawmakers running some COVID-related bills in the special session. One idea being discussed would lift the statewide mask mandate that remains in place for all K-12 schools. But President Adams expressed a desire for a time out on COVID legislation.
"Right now, I think we maybe need to just take a deep breath and celebrate the fact that we are the best economy in the entire nation and we are moving vaccines out," he said. "We’ve almost got between 40-50% of our population with first vaccinations."