The Utah Department of Health (UDOH) released a report on Tuesday outlining the COVID-19 outlook in schools and hospitals. The report also revisits COVID-19 safety metrics set under HB 294 and compares current COVID-19 rates with metrics determined in the bill.
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The new school year is starting in Utah with a law — HB 1007 — which prohibits school districts from enforcing a mask mandate without local health department authorization. Currently, only one school district has implemented a mask mandate.
According to the report, the 2020 school year started with 1,429 confirmed cases of students ages 5-17 and a mask mandate in all schools statewide. So far in August 2021, there have been 5,195 confirmed cases. The report says that is about 3.5 times higher than the start of the 2020 school year.
UDOH says that current projections based on cases and potential caseload growth show cases “increasing dramatically” compared to the cases experienced at the start of the 2020 school year.
COVID-19 vaccinations are also lower in children that are eligible to receive it. The report says only 38.1% of Utah children ages 12-17 are fully vaccinated as of August 30. Four health districts in Utah have less than 20% of eligible children vaccinated and no health districts have more than 60% of their children vaccinated.
According to the report, hospital and intensive care unit (ICU) capacity has also dramatically increased since the beginning of the summer. Since June 1, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has increased by 342%. In the same timeframe, COVID-19 patients in the ICU have gone up 330%.
HB 294, passed in March 2021, established criteria for the lifting of COVID public health orders depending on infection rates and hospitalizations. The metrics were set at a statewide 7-day ICU utilization average of less than 15%, a 14-day case rate at less than 191 per 100,000, and 1.6 million vaccinations allocated to the state.
These metrics were hit in Utah on May 4, 2021 and public health measures have not been changed since their removal. Currently in Utah, the 7-day ICU utilization is at 34.2%, which is 2.3 times higher than the metric. The 14-day case rate is at 512 per 100,000, which is 2.7 times higher than the metric.
These numbers have led to worries about the start of the school year. Parents of immunocompromised children have filed a lawsuit against the state government to protest HB 1007. This law has also started an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) into the Utah Board of Education. A letter from the OCR said:
“I write to inform you that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is opening a directed investigation into whether the Utah State Board of Education may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities as a result of Utah’s policy that prohibits school districts and individual schools from requiring the use of face masks to reduce the risk to students and others of contracting COVID-19 in school.”