Utah’s new coronavirus plan includes retraining, big spending and taking care of high-risk people

(Steve Griffin | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert talks during the daily COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Utah’s governor wants the state headed toward an economic recovery by summer’s end.

To get there, he unveiled a plan Wednesday that includes efforts to get furloughed workers back on the job quickly, retrain those who have been laid off and aim government spending at big public projects that are “shovel-ready.”

The latest state road map also includes new guidelines for continuing to protect high-risk and minority populations in greater danger from the coronavirus while other residents begin resuming activities outside of their homes.

Known as Utah Leads Together 3.0, the Republican governor said Wednesday that the new template “does not mince any words about the overall economic challenges we have faced, and continue to face today.” But, he added, “there is reason to be optimistic and hopeful.”

The news came as health officials added two more deaths to Utah’s official COVID-19 toll, bringing total fatalities from the outbreak to 90. On Tuesday, the state health department reported eight new deaths, the largest one-day toll since the pandemic began.

“Our hearts break for those loved ones who have passed away,” Herbert said. “Utah mourns with you the lost loved ones, friends and family.”

A dozen new patients had been hospitalized as of Wednesday, bringing the total to 631. And the health department reported 192 new cases since Tuesday, a daily rate rise of 2.6%. So far, 7,710 cases in total have been reported in the state.

Utah’s first COVID-19 plan identified urgent, stabilized and recovering stages of the crisis. The 2.0 version introduced color coding for perceived risks from the pandemic, denoted in red, orange, yellow and green levels — each with its own set of precautions for residents and businesses across sectors.

Most Utah cities and towns moved into the low-risk “yellow” category Friday, while a few — Salt Lake City, West Valley City and Magna, as well as Grand, Summit and Wasatch counties — remain in the moderate-risk “orange” level.

Herbert said that Summit and Wasatch counties have asked to move to “yellow,” and that health officials are examining those requests, with an answer expected, he said, by week’s end.

Many Utahns, the governor said, remain concerned about their livelihoods in light of wide economic damage wrought by the pandemic and attempts to contain it by staying home, particularly on the state’s small businesses.

Due in part to how well residents have adhered to social-distancing guidelines since late March, he said, “I think we’ll be pleased to see we’re doing much better economically than most states in America.” Key health metrics on the outbreak, too, show a positive trajectory in the Beehive State, he said. Active hospitalizations have remained steady and the state has had a low virus transmission rate.

“This doesn’t mean it's time to spike the football or declare victory,” Herbert said. “But it does give us assurance with confidence that as we move forward, we’re going to have a positive outcome in protecting people’s lives, but protecting their livelihoods, too.”

Herbert has said he hopes to move the state to a diminished-risk “green” level in “the near future,” though he added any such move would “not be driven by politics. It’ll be driven by science, medicine and data.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said the data doesn’t support such a move at this time.

One of the deaths announced Wednesday was a woman over 60 living in a Salt Lake County long-term care facility. The other was a man over 60, living in Utah County. The health department did not know whether the man had been hospitalized or was living in long-term care.

Those details underscored what officials said Wednesday was a heightened focus in the state’s plan for high-risk populations, with specific guidelines on how to “triage” the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions as well as residents of the state’s nursing homes and those locked up in prison or jail.

Those underlying health conditions include heart disease, respiratory problems, kidney and liver issues, obesity and diabetes.

Nearly 70% of Utahns who’ve died from COVID-19 are 65 years or older and 90% were either at or above that age and had other health challenges, which one official called “a very sobering number.”

Natalie Gochnour, director of the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Center and a key architect of the plan, said the 3.0 version also includes detailed recommendations for identifying and protecting those groups as an integral piece of the state’s overall recovery.

“If you can keep the high-risk population safe,” Gochnour said, “you can have the rest of the population doing more things that enable us to be at 'green’ and have an economy that returns to normal.”

Dunn, the state epidemiologist, stressed the need for Utahns to continue to look out for loved ones who are in these high-risk groups. Those are the people who, if they catch COVID-19, are more likely to get sicker.

“We all need to recognize that it's all of our responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID to these high-risk individuals,” Dunn said. “The way high-risk individuals get infected is from low-risk individuals.”

She also reiterated the importance of wearing a mask, staying home when ill, social distancing and regular hand-washing.

The state’s new plan also provides guidance on the higher vulnerabilities faced by Utah’s ethnic minorities, particularly Hispanic, Pacific Islander, black and Asian residents, many of whom already face economic disparities as well.

Russell said Latinos, for example, represent just 14.2% of the state’s population, but make up 38.1% of those hit by the coronavirus. Many minority residents “don’t have the luxury of staying at home,” said Russell, and they often work two to three jobs. When they do, he said, their “risk becomes even higher.”

Many also feel stigma in seeking a COVID-19 test or even getting in line at a food bank, Russell said, requiring the state to better tailor its assistance to address inequities and overcome some of those cultural barriers.

Gochnour said Utah’s economy was well-positioned when the crisis hit but leaders still must “address these challenges quickly,” in part by investing in rapid worker retraining.

Economic development policies, she said, need to be flexible, targeted by industry and region — and designed not just to repair but to also bring permanent benefits. That includes fortifying supply chains, boosting broadband access for teleworking and strengthening food security.

“Now’s the time to do things differently,” she said.

The 3.0 plan, she said, calls for new state money for training in post-secondary education and state certificates, and for swift investment in big construction-ready government projects.

Even as he leaned toward further reopening Utah’s economy, Herbert bristled at the idea that some Utahns are ignoring safety guidelines, such as wearing masks in public.

“We’re not back to normal, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get back to what we thought was normal,” the governor said. “We’re in the middle of an emergency, still.”

“If you care about yourself and care about your neighbor … you should be wearing a mask,” Herbert said, citing research indicating that widespread use of face coverings could reduce COVID-19 spread by as much as 70%.

Gochnour said the state’s plan hinged on sticking to social distancing steps and gradually reassuring residents of their health and safety.

“This is really a crisis of confidence,” she said. “If you’re not confident that you can go out and be safe, you’re not going to go out. It doesn’t really matter what government says.”

The governor ended Wednesday’s briefing on an optimistic note: “I can promise you, we’ll recover faster than any other state in America.”

Herbert then told Utahns to “be grateful for the success that we’re having. A lot of it has to do with what you’re doing and your behaviors.”