Robert Gehrke: These Utah leaders need to stop undermining our public safety and get on board with our coronavirus plan

Robert Gehrke

Leadership — real leadership — is about making the right choices, especially when they’re unpopular.

There have been two remarkable features of Utah’s COVID-19 response. First, how effective it has been, thanks in part to the second feature, how the vast majority of our leaders, whether they’re in government, religions, community or business, have been focused on a unified purpose, made hard choices and spoken with one voice.

The goals articulated from the outset have been first to slow the spread of the coronavirus and then, to the greatest extent practical, soften the economic hardship and return people to work.

Recently, however, we are seeing an increasing number of Republican politicians flipping the script, ignoring or downplaying the importance of public safety and health in favor of a reckless drive to reopen businesses.

Over the weekend there was another protest, this one in Vineyard, that turned into a Republican campaign event and a model of the kind of reckless behavior we should avoid.

It featured the likes of Attorney General Sean Reyes and his challenger David Leavitt (who had COVID-19), gubernatorial candidates Greg Hughes and Thomas Wright, and congressional candidate Kim Coleman, speaking to clusters of people, no social distancing, no masks, and lots of handshakes and backslaps.

“I’m your cheerleader. I’m here to tell you, as your governor, we will not close down an economy,” Hughes exhorted his petri dish patriots.

Then there is Sen. Mike Lee, who last week Twitter-ranted about how, if senators refuse to take the risk and convene despite COVID-19, they should find a new line of work.

Macho bravado is probably easy when you’re the third youngest senator in a body of senior citizens or if your loved ones aren’t high-risk.

Remember when Lee’s pal Rand Paul tested positive and Sen. Mitt Romney had to quarantine for 14 days to avoid exposing his wife, Ann, who has multiple sclerosis to an illness that is particularly lethal for those with existing health issues? (Lee also flew home to quarantine on a chartered plane that Romney paid for.)

Sorry, Mitt. Get back to work or get out. But thanks for the ride.

Or there is Rep. Paul Ray, who (true story) was a circus performer on the trapeze and high-wire as a youngster and still has the ability to make some pretty impressive flips and twists.

Ray argues he is a “numbers guy” and based on the numbers he has seen, there is no real difference between COVID-19 and the seasonal influenza, that the government was pressured by the media into overreacting, and that it’s time to “fully reopen” the state.

With due respect to Ray being a “numbers guy,” as he put it in his post, he’s wrong that influenza is even in the same league as COVID-19.

Rather than base that on my own nose for numbers, I contacted Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, the head of the infectious disease division at the University of Utah, to explain the differences.

First, he said, COVID-19 is far more lethal. In Utah, about 1 out of every 100 confirmed cases ends in death. Nationally, the rough case fatality rate is 6 in every 100. The flu, by comparison, is about 0.1 for every 100 cases. So COVID is at least 10 times and as many as 60 times as deadly as the flu.

Second, there is immunity to the flu. We’ve had it, or strains of it, and there is a vaccine for it that, while not perfect, works pretty well. There is no such immunity to COVID-19 and no vaccine, meaning the only people who might not be susceptible are those who have already had it.

Third, there are two oral medications that are very effective for treating the flu. There is no effective treatment yet for COVID-19.

Fourth, the course of COVID-19 is unpredictable. Both influenza and COVID are especially dangerous to older people, but COVID has also claimed victims who are young and healthy, while other young, healthy people have mild symptoms, and doctors still don’t understand why that is.

You have "a highly vulnerable population, no vaccine, no treatment, and the risk of dying from coronavirus is many, many, many times that of dying from flu,” Swaminathan told me.

That doesn’t mean, he said, that we can’t find some balance between reopening businesses and controlling the spread of the virus.

“Yes, we want to reopen society and we want to get people back to work for a lot of reasons: People need to work, people need to make money, society needs to continue. It’s important, though, to do it based on data and best practices,” Swaminathan said. “If we don’t attempt to maintain those precautions we will see an increase in cases.”

The doctor emphasized that his comments were not criticism of any legislator or elected official — so I’ll take over from here.

What these protests are offering us is a useful litmus test for leadership in an election year. If you want reactionary politicians in office who make knee-jerk decisions in a crisis based on their gut rather than evidence — well, you’re in luck, because now we know exactly who those people are.

And we know what that kind of politician will yield: More Utahns getting sick, more Utahns dying, and possibly the need to reinstate the kind of restrictions that we don’t want to see again.

Obviously, we all want to be free. Of course we want to be prosperous. But the reason that the revered Founders wrote of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the order they did is that without the first one the other two don’t matter much.