Robert Gehrke: Will Utah survive the coronavirus? Absolutely. Should you be afraid? YES.

Robert Gehrke

In tumultuous times, our elected leaders, health professionals and those of us in the media try to pull off an elaborate balancing act. On one hand, we aim to calm fears, prevent panic, and provide hope. At the same time, we have a duty to convey the life-or-death consequences of our response.

On Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert called a news conference with some of the state’s most prominent business leaders to tamp down alarm about the state’s economy before COVID-19 really plows into Utah.

“We’re going to get through this OK. There’s no reason for the doom and gloom that is out there,” Herbert told the media and the public.

“Cows are still producing milk … chickens are still laying eggs … manufacturers are still making toilet paper,” Herbert said. He suggested he wanted to work on his golf game, encouraged people to get outdoors and take a walk and visit state parks.

The same day, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Utah reached triple-digits for the first time, the number doubling in just three days. Part of that, obviously, is an increase in testing capacity, but state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said the increase is about what was expected and anticipated it would continue to climb for several weeks.

A horrifying study from Imperial College London forecast as many as 2.2 million Americans could die if — and this is key — we don’t act. Things have been moving rapidly and unfortunately the renowned author of the study, Neil Ferguson, will likely be limited in how much he can update the data because — this is real — he contracted the coronavirus.

Another model — available at covidactnow.org — uses similar assumptions as Ferguson and brings the stark reality of the virus closer to home.

Again, if we were to do nothing, nearly 67,500 Utahns would get sick and require hospitalization by next month — roughly 17 times the number of available hospital beds in the entire state and more than 100 times the number of ventilators there are in the state.

Unable to care for all of the sick, an estimated 64,000 would die in Utah alone.

You’ve probably read how COVID-19 has disrupted weddings. The victims of the virus don’t even get proper funerals because public gatherings are too risky.

This is, to be clear, the absolute worst-case scenario and I raise it not to shock people — although it is shocking — but because I’m afraid that way too many people don’t fully grasp the magnitude of the risk.

Here’s the good news: According to Andrew Pavia, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah, these models based on lessons learned in other countries can give us a blueprint on how to combat the spread of the virus.

With early action and reasonably aggressive steps, we should see the flattening of the curve you’ve heard so much about. It enables hospitals to be able to care for those who need it, it buys us time to develop treatments, and lives can be saved.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Pavia told me last week. Herbert and the state Health Department were quick to limit social gatherings, reduce crowd sizes, close bars and restaurants, and faith leaders suspended church services.

“We really can do something. It really can work,” Pavia said. “It’s really going to hurt the economy. It’s hurting individual people … But it really can protect Utah.”

How painful? Goldman Sachs forecast 2.5 million new jobless claims, about four times the peak of the Great Recession. It’s hard for some to comprehend the crisis and to weigh an abstract catastrophe they don’t fully grasp against that kind of economic toll.

Certainly that is true of 17 rural county commissioners, who wrote a letter to Herbert last week blasting the state for a pandemic response that “absolutely and in no way supports the levels of concern that have been raised and the panic that has spread.”

“I think a week from now people are going to say, ’What were we thinking with that coronavirus thing?’” Rep. Phil Lyman, a former San Juan County commissioner who also signed the letter, told my colleague, Taylor Stevens.

And maybe the geographic dispersal means rural Utah won’t get hit as hard as urban areas. But they are also the least equipped to respond.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, San Juan County and the five adjacent Utah counties combined have a total of one intensive care bed.

Grand County, which borders San Juan County was pleading with visitors to not come to Moab and Arches National Park. They closed hotels and restaurants because they don’t have the medical capacity to treat people if they get sick.

Within five days of the commissioners sending their letter, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Utah quadrupled.

And, as Pavia points out, the testing we’re doing now only detects people who were infected 10-12 days ago, since it takes about five days before the first symptoms arise and another week before they are bad enough to require medical attention.

The real infection rate, he said, “is a couple-fold higher at a minimum. It’s 10-fold higher at the outside.”

And that is why the message, especially from elected leaders, can’t be: It’s overblown. No big deal.

A while back Brent Steele, chairman of the political science department at the University of Utah, teamed with a friend who was an expert in infectious diseases to study how different countries reacted to the flu outbreaks in 1918. There was a striking contrast, Steele said, between the rates of death in places like Australia, that took aggressive steps to stop the spread, and Italy, which did not.

The United States was a mixed bag. Some cities moved right away and flattened the curve while places like Philadelphia went ahead with parades and public gatherings and saw rapid spread. We’re seeing that play out again.

“Certain parts of U.S. society, including U.S. politicians, didn’t take [the coronavirus] seriously enough and if we had we might not be in this situation,” Steele told me. “But the situation we’re in right now could get even worse if we don’t take it more seriously.”

The other thing we need to understand is that it will be months before some semblance of normalcy returns to our lives.

“We know we are at the very beginning of this epidemic,” Dunn said last week. “Outbreaks like this can be expected to last several months and we really need to make sure we’re ensuring the capacity of our health care system.”

Yes, we need comfort and reassurance in times like this. Yes, we will get through this. Life will go on and, at some point, return to normal.

We also need to understand that, in the meantime, there will be pain and sacrifice and that this pandemic will get worse before it gets better. Utahns will die. Maybe hundreds, hopefully not more.

But it has the potential to be much more deadly if each of us don’t grasp the danger we are facing and do all that we can to prevent the worst from happening.