Coronavirus-driven ban on mass gatherings voted down in Moab

( Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo ) A 4x4 climbs up Potato Salad Hill in 2009. Thousands of Jeeps descended on the trails surrounding Moab for the annual Easter Jeep Safari.

Grand County Administrator Chris Baird was tearful Wednesday as he warned the County Council that — without decisive action against the coronavirus — “People are going to die unnecessarily."

That is the likely outcome of a coronavirus outbreak in Moab, he said, if nothing is done to mitigate it in a place where an enormous tourism industry could run up against the limits of small-town medical resources.

“I have very clearly communicated with the health department and the hospital, and they are telling me that we cannot respond to this,” Baird said. “We are going to end up in a position where people are going to die unnecessarily because we do not have the health care capacity to deal with this.”

And the CEO of Moab’s hospital said supply shortages already are disrupting operations — offering insight into rural realities, as Utah health care leaders insist medical facilities are prepared to cope with a potential outbreak.

Baird spoke in favor of a proposed restriction in Grand County that would have banned outdoor gatherings of more than 250 people and indoor gatherings of more than 100 people in a single space from March 16 to April 14, according to a notice posted this week by county officials. But it failed on a 3-3 vote after local business owners warned of a potential collapse of the local economy.

“It is absolutely going to send a message — that’s already been sent — that we are closed for business. That is going to bring devastating impacts to this community,” said Councilman Rory Paxman, who voted against the temporary restrictions. “I have a family that has two hotels in town. We donate lots of money to the community. We’re looking at our profits this year already dropping 30 percent just because of bus groups that are cancelling.”

[Read more: Complete coverage of the coronavirus]

The four-week timeframe encompassed the Easter Jeep Safari, scheduled for April 4-12. The event typically draws thousands of visitors to Moab each spring.

If nothing is done to slow the likely spread of coronavirus in Moab, the pressure on hospitals could make it hard for all of the sick people, with or without coronavirus, to obtain care, Baird warned.

“I am worried sick about this economy, and I am worried sick about people dying, people that I know and love,” Baird said.

He warned that viruses can move quickly through a population where it would go from "It’s ‘No big deal,’ ‘No big deal,’ ‘No big deal,’ and then, all of a sudden, we’re overwhelmed.”

That’s why it’s important to try to limit transmission, especially early on, so that new cases do not all occur at once, explained Braden Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department.

“What we are striving to do is have those cases come in a manner that is spread out so our health care workers (and) public health responders can respond adequately to those cases," Bradford said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

At Moab General Hospital, resources are already stretched thin, said CEO Jen Sadoff. There is no intensive care unit in Moab. The hospital has just three ventilators, which are used only to transport patients who require a hospital that provides intensive care, she said. The nearest such hospital is in Grand Junction, Colo.

“They have about 25 ventilators," Sadoff said. "They may or may not be in use at the time [a Moab patient could require one].”

Because COVID-19 is considered airborne, a patient with the disease would be best isolated in a negative-pressure room, Sadoff said — like the tents erected for patient intake at University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City.

But in Moab, there are only six such rooms, one of which is reserved for obstetric patients, she said.

Meanwhile, Sadoff said, “there’s been a massive supply chain disruption.”

On Wednesday, Moab General locked all but two of its doors — in part to funnel patients seeking coronavirus screening after two patients with respiratory symptoms came face-to-face with doctors. The health care workers then have to be quarantined until negative test results are confirmed, she said.

The other reason for locking down entrances, Sadoff said, is that people have been pilfering crucial supplies.

“People are coming in and stealing our boxes of masks,” Sadoff said. “We only have enough masks right now to put on ... every scheduled patient we have in March. ... We don’t have enough masks for our health care workers to change masks between every patient."

“It’s a pretty critical situation,” Sadoff said.

Grand County’s rejection of the proposed limits on mass gatherings may not end this debate. Bradford said the board of health for the Southeast District — Grand, Emery and Carbon counties — would convene in an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss district-wide restrictions.

And Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan said she had gotten inquiries from Washington, Kane, Carbon, Summit, and Salt Lake counties to potentially model similar policies on the language created in Grand County.

In a media briefing Wednesday, Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist, would not comment on Moab’s readiness for an outbreak or on the proposal to restrict mass gatherings. But she said a statewide policy was not yet necessary because the three cases diagnosed in Utah all appear to have contracted the virus out of state.

“When we’re looking at stopping mass gatherings, we’re looking where there’s community spread, and if stopping those mass gatherings would prevent the spread of cases throughout the community,” Dunn said. “Right now, we just haven’t identified any community cases here in Utah, so, at this moment, there’s no need to really cancel huge mass gatherings.”

But Bradford noted that Grand County was in a unique position — not just in the volume of tourism and the potential economic impact of restrictions, but also in its remote location.

“We are isolated here,” Bradford said. “Certainly there are people willing to come to our aid, but that would be limited by time and distance and what else is happening in the state."

Churches were exempted in Grand County’s proposal, and the county did not consider closing schools, even though transmission is possible in those settings. Baird said that’s because tracking people who go to church would be easier than tracking tourists.

Council Chairwoman Mary McGann argued the restrictions were necessary to avoid a crisis — even if the effects on the economy are difficult.

“I’ve had sleepless nights,” McGann said. “It’s going to affect my entire family. It’s going to affect our county, our city, and it’s going to affect our state."

But, she said, "Later on people are going to be looking at us going, ‘Why in the hell didn’t you do something? Why did you let it get to this point?’