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Robert Gehrke: Some want to restart Utah’s economy now. Here’s what needs to happen first.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) A Co-Diagnostics lab technician works with sample tests as the company produces COVID-19 testing kits Friday, March 27, 2020, in Salt Lake City. The company says it has the capacity to produce 50,000 test kits daily from its Salt Lake City facility.

Toward the end of last week, with the rate of new COVID-19 cases leveling off, some started wondering if Utah had reached the peak of the outbreak and questions were raised as to when would be the right time to start easing the restrictions that have kept us housebound and teetering on the brink of madness.

That’s a bit premature, and let me tell you why.

The best way to really understand the full picture, as officials have said over and over, is by doing broad, large-scale testing across the state — and unfortunately, thus far, that testing has been inconsistent.

It’s true that, as a state, Utah has consistently ranked in the top 10 in per capita tests. That’s a very good thing and, if done right, that kind of testing would enable us to use something akin to the strategy that proved effective for South Korea.

Robert Gehrke

“Testing is a cornerstone in our response efforts,” Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, explained last week. “What testing allows us to do is identify individuals with the virus, do case investigation, and identify all their close contacts and make sure they are isolated or quarantined if needed.”

As of Sunday, 44,234 COVID-19 tests had been run. That’s a rate of about one for every 73 Utah residents (though some people have been tested more than once). But whether you had access to testing has depended largely on where you live.

Roughly half of all the tests conducted have been run in Salt Lake County. Testing in Summit County has been exhaustive as well, after the disease was introduced by tourists and spread quickly throughout the community, creating what was, for a time, one of the nation’s leading coronavirus hotspots. Neighboring Wasatch County was also a focal point.

All of this makes sense. But it also means that the rest of the state — home to nearly 2 million people — hasn’t seen anywhere near the level of testing you would need to get a good measure of whether coronavirus is present in those communities and, if it is, how widely it has spread.

As of Saturday, one in about 82 Davis County residents had been tested. In Weber and Morgan counties, it was one in 100. And in Utah County, the rate was one out of 155.

The rate in Salt Lake County, by comparison, is about one out of every 50 residents. What’s more, the three Salt Lake County ZIP codes bordering Utah County have an infection rate that is almost 50% higher than Utah County’s reported rate.

Efforts are underway to address this testing disparity and to give us better data on what really is out there. The Silicon Slopes-led TestUtah.com push is part of that. It has already set up two testing sites in Utah County. Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah are working with the state to set up mobile labs that can bring testing capabilities to rural Utah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Medical teams prepare for testing at the drive-thru testing center at the Timpanogos Regional Medical Center in Orem, Tuesday April 7, 2020.

“We’re working together to identify which geographic areas could benefit the most from these alternative testing sites,” Dunn said, noting St. George, in particular, was one that they were focused on.

Indeed, testing has lagged in Washington and Iron counties, and news reports have focused on how residents in Washington County are going about life as usual, getting their nails done and hair cut.

The news from the past week has generally been good. While there were more than 600 new cases identified and 10 deaths, the rate that cases were growing in the past week was half what it was a week before.

So the message is twofold: First, what we’re doing is working. And second, even though I know everyone is clawing at the walls and I know people are suffering and want life to return to normal, we’re not there. Not yet.

The sacrifices Utahns are making have not been in vain. The most widely cited public model, which comes out of the University of Washington, has gone from forecasting more than 600 Utahns dead to fewer than 200.

“We haven’t seen that huge surge,” Dunn said late last week, “so that means we might be at the beginning of this and might need several more weeks or a couple of months of social distancing.”

Utah’s medical community expects that peak to hit in May or maybe June. That’s why two 50-person teams from Intermountain are headed to New York City to help in the fight there. They say it will help them get prepared if and when we see an increase in serious cases.

In the meantime, testing capability will continue to expand across the state (followed soon by antibody testing to identify who might be immune to the virus). And as it does, we will get to a place where maybe we can start the discussion of what restrictions can be rolled back and when life can go back to normal.

Until then, keep doing what you’re doing, Utah. Your vigilance and sacrifices have already saved an untold number of lives, and hopefully someday soon we will be able to celebrate what we have achieved.

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