Utahns say health officials — not politicians — should determine COVID policies

A few hundred people rallied on the steps of the state Capitol on Saturday in favor of letting health officials make public health decisions instead of politicians.

Signs showed people being “for public health” while other signs spoke of saving lives or listening to science.

Participants are frustrated with the actions of the majority of the Utah Legislature to ban mask mandates statewide and have called for local oversight and health department oversight of health issues. As the group sat on the steps, people who are dealing with longer-term effects of COVID-19 in themselves or family members spoke, as well as doctors, health officials. public health, teachers and students.

Chris Phillips, president of the Utah Concerned Coalition, said the coalition includes people from a variety of counties and political backgrounds, and is full of parents and community members who care about children’s health.

“Our governor and our legislature have downplayed public health tools like masking because, on their own, they are flawed. But our COVID defenses are not meant to be used alone. Our knowledge of what works well and what that doesn’t work well Today, we have a number of good tools at our disposal that can serve as a solid defense set, but our legislature has made it nearly impossible to truly use these tools in our communities – even in the face of a crisis,” Phillips said.

Utah Concerned Coalition is an organization that filed a complaint against Salt Lake State and County leaders after taking action to end mask mandates earlier in the pandemic. Phillips said Saturday that not having a mask mandate prevents children who are immunocompromised or have other health conditions from receiving an in-person education, which is one of their rights.

He said Utah politicians have always blocked local experts from helping their communities. Politics and public health are linked, Phillips said, but the best policies are formed when politicians consult and work with health officials on issues related to public health.

“While public health is indeed political, it shouldn’t be partisan. To tie public health in a legislative ball of yarn is to advance this crisis. And that’s what we’re seeing from our leaders today.” today,” Phillips said.

Dr. David N. Sundwall, a doctor who also helped create national and state health policy before as executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said he was a Republican and supported government and conservative values ​​limited, but an important role of government is to ensure the health of its citizens.

“I call on everyone here to respect each other. Please don’t demonize critics of public health,” Sundwall said. “But I also call on those who were reluctant to government interventions to demonstrate that they can also benefit if we just get this virus under control.”

He said members of the public health community need to be humble and recognize that some policies have not proven to be as effective as officials once hoped and have caused poor economic and emotional outcomes.

Dr. Marc Babitz, medical director of Utah Health Clinics, speaks at the Concerned Coalition’s Public Health Rally at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Dr. Marc E. Babitz, a former deputy director of the Utah Department of Health, said he’s never seen politics interfere with public health like it has during the pandemic. He said he remembered community responses to smallpox and polio vaccinations, and how they received a universal positive response.

“What’s wrong with us? Wake up, America,” Babitz said.

He said the term freedom should mean that everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and that the freedom of others has no right to interfere with their life or freedom. He said freedom is not as important. He said there is a “culture of self” that is becoming more prominent and replacing concern for others.

“The irony of the ‘me culture’ for these people who choose not to take preventative measures against COVID, when that ‘me culture’ person gets sick, where do they go? They go to the hospital. And they are waiting for the ‘we’ and ‘we” who have taken precautions all this time to take care of them. Is that how it works? If they really believe in their freedom to do whatever they want, then don’t go to the hospital. Prove to me that you’re okay and stay there on your own,” Babitz said.

Stephanie Arceneaux said she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes as a child after contracting a virus, and data shows that children who have had COVID-19 are 166% more likely to develop a type 1 diabetes. She said people needed to be more careful because a virus like COVID-19 could cause other negative health outcomes.

Arceneaux said she, her husband and her only child all have diabetes and are considered high risk.

“We’re more vulnerable because we’re at high risk. That doesn’t make us disposable. We’re not pending statistics. That’s why we’re counting on everyone working together to do everything we can. to decrease the proliferation of COVID,” Arceneaux said.

Lisa O’Brien, who founded a Facebook group for other Utah “long haulers,” said the group has more than 4,000 members and many Utahns face various long-term effects of COVID-19 even when they had a mild initial case of the coronavirus and previously had good health. O’Brien said studies show that 30% of people who get COVID-19 will have lasting symptoms, which at this point would represent more than 250,000 Utahns.

“We must not ignore the real and significant risk of a long COVID as we discuss the future of this pandemic. The community as a whole deserves to know the true risk of even mild COVID infection and the to leave out is dismissive of those who are still struggling. We cannot let COVID-19 survivors be forgotten and suffer alone and in silence,” O’Brien said.

Many speakers thanked teachers and said mask requirements would make schools safer.

People join the Concerned Coalition's public health rally demanding to remove partisan politics from Utah's public health policies at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

People join the Concerned Coalition’s public health rally demanding to remove partisan politics from Utah’s public health policies at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Kelly Whited Jones, a teacher in the Davis School District, said she now has to constantly think about the physical safety of her students. She has a responsibility to let them know when they may have been exposed and ask them to get tested for COVID-19. Jones wears multiple masks so she has an effective mask, but still looks like a teacher and not a nurse.

“The only day I didn’t spend a few extra minutes thinking about safety was the first day this semester when the mask mandate was in place in Salt Lake County and I didn’t have to take precious classroom time warning students. They were all wearing their masks. Instead, we focused on learning together, safer,” Jones said.

She said even the local gas station had more measures to protect its workers and asked why the money was being spent on testing for COVID-19 but not on preventive measures.

In addition to a few teachers, several students who were planning walkouts at their schools in support of mask mandates spoke at Saturday’s rally. Some said they did not feel safe at school, and others said they were faced with the choice of going to school and risking contracting and transmitting COVID-19. family members with health problems or lacking education.

Carly McAleer, one of four students at the rally who helped plan a strike at Park City High School, has said for the past few months that she was afraid to go to school. She said the Utah Legislature’s actions to strike down Summit County’s mask mandate seemed like a “complete disregard” for her safety, that of her teachers and others at school.

“Protecting each other used to be common sense, it’s taught in schools. But now it’s become political. The country’s top immunologists, virologists and doctors have shown time and time again that wearing masks, getting vaccinating and physically distancing from the best of our ability reduces the spread of COVID-19. Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It is a commitment to the safety of your friends and community members. said McAleer.

She said it’s a small thing anyone can do to help others feel protected and encouraged people to wear masks for others.

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