Just days before Grand County School District schools are scheduled to open, the district announced a 30-day indoor mask mandate for students and staff in K-6 schools.

In a pivot from the district’s published reopening plan, representatives from the school district indicated that the change was due to the spread of the COVID-10 Delta variant and the fact that protective vaccines are still not available for children under 12.

“We have watched as schools around the country have opened in the past several weeks, and one thing has become clear—COVID-19 and its variants are making younger patients ill, sometimes critically ill, at a higher rate than has previously been seen during this pandemic,” reads a letter from the school district to the community.

Officials from the Moab Regional Hospital, the Southeast Utah Health Department, and the Grand County Commission agreed that the order was appropriate and approved it on Aug. 17. Under Utah state law, a county health department and a county governing body must approve any mask requirements in schools.

SEUHD Health Director Brady Bradford said that, as of Aug. 17, there were 6 active pediatric cases of COVID-19 in Grand County; there have been 10 so far this month.

Moab Regional Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dylan Cole commented that using all the tools available to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak will allow in-person school to continue, something that he said is “essential to our kids.”

Grand County School District Superintendent Taryn Kay said the decision to issue the order was made quickly; over the course of the pandemic, she said the school community has had to get used to changing information and quick adaptation.

“It’s definitely a polarizing issue,” said Kay. “For me, it is not political—it is a public health measure that we can take to minimize the effects of the devastating pandemic.”

At its Aug. 17 meeting, the Grand County Commission voted unanimously in favor of a letter supporting the health department’s order. Several parents called in to the commission meeting to comment on the mask order. The majority of callers opposed the order.

Mother Crystal Harrison called in to say that her child has asthma and she doesn’t want him to be required to wear a mask.

“I feel like masks are fine, if you choose to wear them,” said Heather Taylor, who has children enrolled at Helen M. Knight Elementary School. “We do not feel our kids need to be put in a position where they don’t have a choice,” she said, commenting her family was “100% opposed” to the order.

Several parents asked to see the data supporting the decision to issue a mask order.

Bradford, MRH CEO Jen Sadoff, and MRH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Dylan Cole all attended the commission meeting to address those questions and explain the reasoning behind the order.

Bradford pointed to data from last year that showed that COVID-19 cases went up among kids when they transitioned from the summer to the school year. Data showed an increase from one case per month in the summer to about 22 cases per month when school was in session. He said that pattern is expected to repeat this year, prompting the need to protect students who have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated.

“This really boils down to the new variants, and the Delta variant in particular, that’s just a much different virus than we dealt with for most of 2020,” said Cole. “It’s more contagious, it spreads faster, and there is evidence in some global studies that it may cause more severe illness than previous strains.”

Cole displayed a graph of COVID-19 hospitalization rates for children and adolescents. Starting in July of this year, he said, the trends are much higher than they’ve been throughout the pandemic so far.

“In the last week, based on CDC data, we had about 1800 kids hospitalized, which is a 500% increase, since early July,” Cole continued.

Locally, he said, MRH has treated a young child with COVID-19. Cole noted that while Moab can feel somewhat sheltered from national trends, the community does share the same risks seen in more populous areas.

“We certainly are seeing these kinds of trends in Utah as well,” he said. “One thing we particularly noted in Utah last year is the fall surge that started with kids returning to school.”

Increased hospitalizations pose a challenge to the healthcare system, Cole said. “We’ve had situations just over the last four to six weeks where we had difficulty with our regional ICUs being unable to accept transfers, being full at this point.”

Grand County is not the only Utah county worried about the Delta variant as schools open.

In Salt Lake County, a mask order for school kids under 12 was issued by the local health department but was overturned by the Salt Lake County Council. According to a report from Fox13 News, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall plans to authorize a mask requirement for the Salt Lake City School District, something the Salt Lake City attorney says she has the authority to do, in spite of law enacted by the state legislature this year limiting local executives’ power to issue mask orders.

Cole emphasized that masks are an effective part of a “layered approach” that includes isolation for positive cases, quarantine of exposed individuals, social distancing, ventilation, and hand washing. He encouraged parents and community members to read CDC literature on the effectiveness of masks in reducing transmission of the virus.

Bradford said that at the end of the 30 days of the order, which goes into effect at 7 a.m. on the first day of school, Aug. 19, the health department will compare the case rate among the pediatric population to the rate seen at the start of the order, and also compare it to what’s happening around the state, to evaluate whether the order needs to be reinstated for another 30 days. He said he does not have a defined threshold for when the mask order would be lifted.

Sadoff said the goal of the mask order is to protect kids who can’t yet get vaccinated. She said that even healthy kids can get very sick from COVID-19, a truth that “hit close to home” when MRH treated a severe pediatric case.

“I know most people would jump in front of a car to save a kid,” said Sadoff. “We just don’t know who could have a severe illness or death if they get COVID. We just don’t know that.”