Spencer Cox raises alarm about COVID surge, faces blowback after ‘extreme masker’ comment

(KCPW News – AUDIO follows text) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Tuesday raised an alarm about a surge in coronavirus cases in the state, and about a resulting crisis for Utah’s healthcare system.

During a coronavirus briefing at the state capitol Tuesday morning, Cox said that Utah recently reached an unwelcome milestone.

“For the first time in our state during this pandemic we actually had a moment where there were no ICU beds available in the state,” Cox told reporters in the Gold Room of the state capitol.

“On Friday evening, a rural hospital needed to transfer a patient in critical condition to a hospital with more advanced treatment capacities. They called two hospitals but were denied due to bed shortages,” Cox said.

Gov. Spencer Cox gives a coronavirus briefing on August 31, 2021

Eventually that patient was able to be transferred to an ICU bed, after another patient’s condition became stable. But the moment underscored a dire situation for hospitals, hospital workers and for patients in Utah.

Dr. Marc Harrison, CEO of Intermountain Healthcare said he was joining in Tuesday’s public appeal despite his own underlying health condition because he wanted to drive home a message about the importance of public health measures to protect the community at large, and healthcare workers in particular.

“I have an incurable blood cancer called multiple myeloma and I’m…in remission right now, but I’m also profoundly immunodeficient,” Harrison said.

“I would normally avoid a group like this, but I’m here today because what we’re talking about is so important. 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,” Harrison explained.

During a Q&A following the briefing, Gov. Cox seemed to undercut the message being conveyed by Dr. Harrison and other healthcare professionals on mask-wearing. The governor said he had a “deep concern” about younger students having to wear masks and drew a parallel between pro- and anti-mask Utahns.

“The anti-maskers and the extreme maskers…we just need to get over ourselves a little bit and try to have a little bit of common sense here,” Cox said.

The apparent watering-down of public health guidance on mask-wearing drew stiff rebukes from healthcare professionals on Twitter, among them Dr. Emily Spivak, an infectious disease physician with the University of Utah.

In an interview with KCPW on Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Spivak said there was no question that masks work to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“There is no question that masks work and there is also evidence from around the country and evidence specifically from the state of Utah that masks for school-aged children [was] clearly one of the main mitigation strategies that we used last year that allowed our kids to stay in school and made staying in school safe,” Dr. Spivak said.

“To me there’s no question that masks work and there is no ongoing debate on that issue,” Spivak added.

In the coming days, the governor is expected to pitch a proposal to lawmakers that would see masks required in schools when certain infection thresholds are surpassed in individual schools. Mask requirements would be lifted when infections went under that threshold, the governor said Tuesday.

Utah lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year preventing school districts from implementing mask mandates and as a result it appears unlikely that they would agree to a mandate now.

In the meantime the University of Utah’s Dr. Spivak says the current COVID situation in Utah should be a wake-up call.

“This is probably the worst time we’ve had in all of this pandemic – the cases going up, kids going back to school without masks and the setting of the Delta variant – and unfortunately I think it’s going to get as bad as it’s been if not worse,” Spivak said.

Utah Health officials reported 1,218 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday. School-aged children accounted for 270 of the new cases. Seven more deaths were also added to the state’s official COVID-19 tally.

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