Robert Gehrke: Here’s proof that social distancing is working in Utah, but now is no time to let up

Robert Gehrke

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First, the good news: The work we are all doing and the sacrifices we are making appear to be keeping the spread of COVID-19 at least somewhat in check.

Yes, the number of cases in Utah is growing — and will continue to grow in the coming weeks. But we are seeing the pace of that growth slowing and the rate of positive tests has been fairly steady.

Entering last week, we were seeing the number of confirmed cases rising sharply, doubling about every 2½ days (in part due to an increase in testing). But by Sunday, the number of cases was doubling every four days.

If we had kept doubling at such a rapid pace, we could’ve had 10,000 cases by the end of this week. Now, if we stay on course, it could be fewer than 3,000.

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“Our case increases on a daily basis continue to be steady here in Utah, and that’s a good sign. We have not seen the exponential increase that … other states across the country have seen,” said Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist. “So that means our social distancing measures and our public health measures are working currently.”

Seeing a reasonable spread of coronavirus like that is a big deal that we should be proud of and Utahns across the state should give each other a high five — someday, but, I cannot stress this enough, not right now.

Because the cold reality is we are not even close to being out of the woods.

Since we don’t have real sports to watch anymore, I’ll use a sports metaphor: We are still in the first quarter of this game against a vicious opponent that, if we don’t keep up our defense, could run wild against us. And kill a whole bunch of people.

That stopped being a good sports metaphor.

Christopher Murray, chairman of the Department of Health Metrics Sciences at the University of Washington, has modeled the COVID-19 spread for all 50 states, and based on his data Utah could run out of space in intensive care units around the end of the week, two dozen could be dead and more than 700 hospitalized. More than 600 could die before the virus runs its course.

The threat we are facing is still dire.

That’s why Gov. Gary Herbert on Friday reemphasized his call on Utahns to keep doing what they’ve been doing and to do more of it. Unfortunately, it was more of an “I mean it, mister,” from the governor than anything with real penalties, but Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson have since announced police would enforce the state guidelines in their jurisdictions.

It’s also why, when the state issued its recommendations for economic recovery, the first and foremost priority — the “urgent phase” of the plan — was to control the spread of the virus. It’s a period that is expected to last eight weeks — long and painful weeks for 19,600 Utahns who have already lost their jobs and filed for unemployment benefits last week, and the thousands more who will certainly be filed since then.

And it’s why it’s probably best to ignore what’s coming out of the White House.

When President Donald Trump talks about reopening the economy by Easter, tune it out. It can’t happen and any attempt to do it would be catastrophic. The New York Times worked with epidemiologists to model what would happen if we dropped our closures and social distancing on Easter and the results were about as catastrophic as if we hadn’t done anything in the first place.

When the president talks about ranking counties based on relative risks, ignore that, too. The president couldn’t draw Utah on a map if you gave him a Sharpie, he certainly doesn’t know the risk of coronavirus in Cache or Tooele or Sanpete counties better than the state and county health officials who have spent the past month monitoring, tracking and responding to it.

If you pay attention to anything out of Washington, D.C., pay attention to (and you won’t read these words in my column frequently) what Sen. Mike Lee is always talking about: federalism.

Because what we’ve seen in the past several weeks has been a brilliant example of federalism in action, where it has been state, county and local governments that have stepped up to do remarkable work.

So tune out the talk of wonder drugs and rebooting the economy and states not needing ventilators and boasts about TV ratings. Listen to the people at the state and local level when they tell you, plead with you and in some instances order you: Keep doing what you’re doing, Utah.

Heed their call to inaction. Stay home. Maintain that social distance of at least 6 feet. Don’t congregate, period. Telecommute. Minimize trips to the grocery store or other travel.

At the same time, reach out to those who might be too isolated and make sure they have what they need, physically and emotionally.

We can’t “beat” a viral outbreak. It’s about containing the spread and we have held the line far better than I ever thought we would up to this point, but we are in this for the long haul and now is no time to let up and risk losing what we accomplished, not to mention losing the lives of our friends, family and neighbors.