She didn’t say it outright, but if officials were considering only the trajectory of the coronavirus, it seems safe to say state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn wouldn’t have opened Utah up just yet.
“From a public health perspective, it would make me feel more comfortable if we were seeing that actual decline in cases," Dunn said Tuesday morning in an episode of “Trib Talk,” a live interview on The Salt Lake Tribune’s Facebook page with Tribune columnist Gordon Monson. "But again, these decisions are a balance.”
Federal guidelines suggest waiting until states have seen a 14-day decrease in cases before easing restrictions. Utah shifted from “red” to “orange” alert status on May 1, as the number of cases showed increases.
Dunn said that those working in public health are anxious about reopening, but conceded that a poor economy would also impact peoples’ health. That’s why, she said, she’s just one voice giving Gov. Gary Herbert advice on how to move forward to save both lives and livelihoods amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In a 25-minute conversation with Monson, Dunn discussed topics from the usefulness of masks to the purpose of antibody testing to the potential spike in new COVID-19 cases, now that the state has begun its slow steps back to normal.
“I don’t even know what normal is anymore," Monson said, before asking, "But what is the path to normalcy?”
Dunn said regular life will resume once someone creates a vaccine and it’s used to create herd immunity — where 60% to 80% of people are immune to COVID-19. The earliest she sees that happening is May 2021.
Until then, Utah will have to weigh public health and economic needs, putting in place restrictions when need arises and opening back up when it’s tenable, she said. And people should still be taking precautions, like wearing masks in public to protect others and self-isolating when possible.
She added that models showing predictions for case counts after Utah reopens all have one thing in common: “They’re all wrong.”
There’s no way to tell right now what will happen. All public health officials can do is watch the data and pitch to reinstate restrictions if cases counts grow, she said. Hopefully, a tiered and slow reopening will stave off a surge in cases, she added.
Dunn added endurance is key in this fight. “We are not going to jump to a zero-risk life anytime soon,” she said. "We have to be patient.”
Monson also asked Dunn why antibody testing is important. Eventually, she answered, it will show how prevalent COVID-19 is in Utah.
But first, the testing needs to be reliable. Dunn said the tests still return false positives, meaning they find COVID-19 antibodies in the blood of people who have never had the disease.
Once the tests are in place, Dunn said, scientists can learn how many people have been exposed to the coronavirus. Perhaps at some point, testing will tell us if someone is immune, or even is building immunity to COVID-19 by having it is possible, she said.