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Utah declares state of emergency and orders residents to mask up amid Covid-19 case surge

In other coronavirus news: Pfizer raises hope for new vaccine, Biden announces Covid-19 task force and Ben Carson tests positive.
Image: Utah Coronavirus
Salt Lake County Health Department public health nurses participate in coronavirus testing outside the Salt Lake County Health Department, in Salt Lake City on Oct. 23, 2020.Rick Bowmer / AP file

A two-week state of emergency sparked by a surge in new Covid-19 cases went into effect Monday in Utah and the governor there has ordered residents to mask up “for the foreseeable future.”

Gov. Gary R. Herbert, a Republican who has supported wearing masks but had resisted imposing a mandate, reversed course after the state experienced a 46 percent increase in new cases in the last two weeks, the latest NBC News figures showed.

“We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer,” Herbert said in a video posted Sunday to Twitter. “Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom.”

Image: Utah's governor Gary Herbert announces a new state of emergency and COVID-19 restrictions, in Salt Lake City, Utah
Utah's governor Gary Herbert announces a new state of emergency and COVID-19 restrictions, in Salt Lake City on Nov. 8, 2020.Utah Governor's Office via Reuters

Herbert signed the order on the same day that Covid-19 cases topped 50 million around the world and before the electrifying news from drug company Pfizer Monday that an early analysis of its potential coronavirus vaccine showed it was 90 percent effective at preventing infections.

The Pfizer announcement came on the heels of Joe Biden's projected victory over President Donald Trump in a presidential election that became a referendum on the Trump administration’s much-criticized response to a pandemic that has killed nearly 240,000 people in the United States and infected more than 10 million. Both are world-leading figures.

Albert Bourla, CEO Pfizer in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 24, 2018.
Albert Bourla, CEO Pfizer in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 24, 2018.Gian Ehrenzeller / Keystone via AP

"Today is a great day for science and humanity," Albert Bourla, Pfizer's chairman and chief executive, said in a statement. "We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen."

In other coronavirus news:

  • President-elect Joe Biden announced former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and Yale University professor Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith would lead his new Covid-19 task force.
  • Ben Carson became the latest member of the Trump administration to test positive for the coronavirus, NBC News has confirmed. The Housing and Urban Development secretary had attended a post-election night event Wednesday at the White House at which Trump falsely claimed he won the election.
  • David Bossie, who was recently picked to head the president’s re-election legal challenges, has also tested positive for coronavirus. “Because he can’t be at the campaign headquarters and he can’t be in the Oval Office, Dave’s no longer a part of the decision making process," a source told NBC News.
  • While Trump has frequently pointed out that the number of new coronavirus cases has been rising rapidly in Europe, the U.S. has almost 20 percent of the world's recorded Covid-19 fatalities and the 12th worst deaths-per-capita ratio in the world, according to the Johns Hopkins University pandemic dashboard. That is far higher than those of most other developed countries.
  • Wall Street surged after the Pfizer vaccine announcement, building on gains that came after Biden was projected the winner of the presidential election.
  • So many people have died of the coronavirus in El Paso, Texas that the city has run out of morgue space and is now storing bodies in refrigerated trailers.
  • Want to be with your family on Thanksgiving? Then you should quarantine for two weeks ahead of the holiday, experts told NBC News.

Vice President Mike Pence hailed the apparent Pfizer breakthrough as the end result of the “public-private partnership forged by” Trump to develop a Covid-19 vaccine called “Operation Warp Speed.”

Not so fast, Pfizer’s vaccine development chief Dr. Kathrin Jansen told The New York Times

“We were never part of the Warp Speed,” Jansen said. “We have never taken any money from the U.S. government, or from anyone.”

Trump had repeatedly promised the American people, without offering any evidence, that a Covid-19 vaccine would be ready by Election Day.

Dr. Tom Kenyon, chief medical officer at the international health care organization Project HOPE, said the first recipients of any new Covid-19 vaccine are likely to be doctors, nurses and other frontline workers.

"It will take time, but to bring this pandemic to an end will require us all to unite and be vaccinated, as well as continue to follow recommendations from the scientists to wear a mask, keep a safe distance from others, and to wash our hands," Kenyon said.

Utah, a reliably Republican state that went for Trump in this election, has reported 132,621 confirmed Covid-19 cases and 659 deaths since the start of the pandemic, NBC News data shows.

While those numbers are small compared to Texas, which leads the nation with more than a million cases, Utah is one of the states in the nation’s midsection that saw a surge in new infections in the weeks leading up to the presidential election.

Trump, who came down with the infection himself as the coronavirus spread through the White House, continued trying to convince skeptical Americans that the pandemic was under control at a series of campaign stops in battleground states where few of his supporters wore masks or attempted to practice social distancing. He also helped politicize the issue of wearing masks by refusing himself to wear them at most public events.

Biden on Monday kicked off his presidential transition by imploring Americans to don the masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“A mask is not a political statement, but it is a way to start pulling the country together,” Biden said. “The goal of mask-wearing is not to make you less comfortable, or take something away from you. It's to give something back to all of us, a normal life."

Herbert’s order, which ends a few days before Thanksgiving, is far from draconian.

It does not require any businesses to close, nor does it affect churches in this deeply religious state. It also does not move junior high school and high school classes online as the local teachers union had been demanding, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

“Our hospitals are full,” Herbert said on the clip. “This threatens patients who rely on hospital care for everything from Covid-19 to emergencies like heart attacks, strokes, surgeries and trauma.”