For the director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, the end of the pandemic at large — for the region, not just for vaccinated individuals — is in sight.
Grand County saw a surge in cases in April, at one point seeing 64 cases reported in single week, but cases now appear to be dropping. In the seven days leading up to Monday, the county saw 24 new cases.
Bradford said he expects the numbers to continue dropping to 10 cases per week on average. But at what point is the pandemic over? At what point is it okay to leave masking behind?
Inside the health department at least, masking is over.
“At our internal meetings, we’ve stopped wearing masks, knowing basically the vaccine status of our employees,” Bradford said. “We still encourage [masking] with the public, though at some point, that will end as well, and possibly by the end of May.”
Bradford said one primary thing would dictate Moab’s path to leaving behind the less savory health guidelines it has followed for the past year. They key: vaccine availability.
“Are the resources that people are looking for available?” Bradford asked. “That main resource at first was testing, and now it’s vaccinations. Yes, those are available to anyone who wants it.”
It’s not just that the health department has more vaccine doses on hand than they are able to give out. They are also delivering the vaccine to locals in whatever manner they need to get it.
“We’ll go to your business. We’ll hold special clinics,” Bradford said. “On a few occasions, we’ve gone to houses.” He later clarified the house visits were by request, not by surprise.
For vaccinated folks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its guidance last week to make clear that anyone who is fully vaccinated no longer needs to mask indoors or outdoors, for the most part.
On their own properties, Grand County, the City of Moab and some local businesses have continued mask requirements, in part because of an inability to easily discern vaccinated people from unvaccinated people.
The Grand County School District, as part of a statewide policy on masking, has also continued requiring masks for students and teachers. Bradford said that, although children tend to be less affected by COVID-19, they can still carry the disease.
But, Bradford said, the impact on children is still considerable when considering the bigger picture. He said that more children in Utah were hospitalized during the latest flu season, which ended in March, than during the past five years combined.
“It’s significantly — we can say five times more impactful — on a health scale than influenza,” Bradford said. “We understand a little bit more that it definitely can be more severe than the flu, and many of these kids will have long hauler effects.”
He said children are not the only people still personally susceptible to the disease because of an inability to vaccinate. Doctors have advised some patients with a history of certain allergic reactions against getting a vaccine because of the risk involved.
Still others eligible for the vaccine have chosen not to get it for other reasons, even if against the advice of medical professionals. “There’s a risk inherent with that, but there’s a risk inherent with everything we do in life,” Bradford said.
He went on: “Have we done enough to alleviate the burden on our healthcare system and reduce the chance that we’re going to have many of our older, more vulnerable population get sick or die? Yes, we’ve done that. And it’s important to keep that in mind: That was the goal behind all of this in the first place — not to eliminate COVID but to flatten the curve.”