Cowley: Stop Prioritizing Politics over Public Health


Sydney Stam

(Graphic by Sydney Stam | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Elle Cowley, Multimedia Managing Editor


Within the first week of the session, the legislature repealed mask mandates in two Utah counties. The justification for the removal of mask mandates was that elected officials had a “better scope of the situation” than local health officials. The mandates were lifted at the peak of the Omicron surge when cases in Utah averaged 10,000 new cases a day. To put that in perspective, Utah was averaging 1,500 cases a day around the same time last year.

Throughout the pandemic, Utah lawmakers have repeatedly put politics over the health and safety of Utahns. The passing of House Bill 183, which suspends all test-to-stay programs and requires schools to get approval from the school board and a sign-off from the governor before going to remote learning is the most recent example of this.

Test to stay is the practice of providing COVID-19 tests to students to track the spread of the virus throughout schools. All Utah schools were required to implement tests to stay when they reached a certain threshold. Small schools with a student body of less than 1,500 had a limit of 30 cases or more, while for larger schools 2% of the student body had to be testing positive. Test to stay provides free tests to students and helps contact tracing efforts during surges of COVID-19. Test-to-stay helped keep Utah schools in session during surges of COVID-19. The CDC estimates that test to stay and test to play programs saved 109,752 in-person student instructional days in Utah alone. Test to stay provides a layer of protection to in-person learning, which is vitally important since masks are no longer required. The Omicron variant is the most highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 yet, which makes regular testing more important than ever.

While H.B 183 ultimately passed, another bill suspending test-to-stay was also proposed to the legislature. The suspension of test-to-stay and the removal of mask mandates during a part of the pandemic where case counts were higher than ever is irresponsible and unforgivable. Schools are no longer required to implement tests to stay when thresholds are reached. If the school wishes to move to online learning, the school board, governor and multiple members of the government must sign off. Elected officials are ignoring the advice of local health officials and CDC guidance, and in doing so are putting many Utahns at unnecessary risk of contracting COVID-19.

Students should not have to choose between their education and the health of themselves and their families. While case counts have dipped significantly over the past couple of weeks, Utah isn’t out of the clear. It is suspected that case numbers may be underreported due to the inaccuracy of rapid tests on the Omicron variant. Experts are also wary of a new variant of Omicron called B. A 2, which threatens to slow case declines. Even as the pandemic appears to be winding down, COVID-19 will never fully go away. COVID-19 will continue to infect people just as the flu or the common cold, which is why it’s important to have testing and other preventative measures in place in case of an outbreak.

While previous variants of COVID-19 have not been of concern for young children, the Omicron variant is different. Omicron is much more likely to put children in the hospital than any other variant up to this point. Hospitalization of children five and under have skyrocketed to two to four times that of previous variants. Because COVID-19 is a relatively new disease, there is no way to know the long-term health complications. Preliminary studies have found everything from neurological problems to long-term heart conditions. Even though the COVID-19 vaccine has been FDA approved for children 5-11, only 28.1% of eligible children have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Children under 5 remain one of the last groups to be approved for the vaccine, which is still undergoing tests for efficacy. Due to the lack of vaccinations and the increased risk of hospitalization, extra steps should be taken to protect children during in-person instruction. School is an environment where COVID-19 can spread quickly, and with no masking measures in place, regular testing is vital to mitigate outbreaks. The CDC currently recommends masking in learning environments, as well as testing regularly. When there are so many uncertainties about the long-term implications of COVID-19, it’s better to take more precautions to keep everyone safe.

Lawmakers should have listened to the guidance of health officials before making decisions that put one of our most vulnerable populations at risk. If they truly had a better understanding of the impact of the pandemic, they would be taking all the necessary steps to ensure that children can attend in-person school in the safest way possible. Disease and the spread of disease should never be a political talking point.


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