Robert Gehrke: Utah is at a COVID-19 tipping point. Things could get much worse if we don’t step up now.

Robert Gehrke

Utah, we are precariously perched on a tipping point.

After two months of sacrifice and bitter economic hardship, we came together to flatten that proverbial curve and control the coronavirus spread. It was inspiring to see people pull together and it enabled us to take baby steps on the long road to normalcy.

But all you have to do is look around and see too many people have taken loosening restrictions to mean that the virus is gone, the disease vanquished and life can go back to normal.

Who can blame them? The past few months have been excruciating. We’re over it and ready to live our lives.

Unfortunately, we’re just starting to see the fallout from that attitude in our most recent coronavirus data.

In the past 10 days, we added more than 3,500 new cases, 350 a day on average. For most of May, we averaged 150 per day. It’s a troubling spike. The past two weeks have seen 13 of the 14 highest case totals since the outbreak began.

Utah experienced the sixth highest per capita increase in cases in the nation last week, according to data crunched by FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.

Utah’s transmission rate — which represents how many people will be infected by someone who has the virus — had been at or below 1, meaning the number of new infections would stay fairly steady. Now it is right around 1.2, which may not sound like much, but it’s an increase of 20% that, if it continues, will mean continued sharp growth in new cases.

There is good news. While the number of hospitalizations has been climbing, the percent of hospital beds occupied is still manageable and the rates of those infected who end up in the hospital, an intensive care unit or dead are well below the national average.

The problem, however, is where the state goes from here.

“We’re sort of in this in-between,” Lindsay Keegan, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Utah who is helping the state model the outbreak, told me last week. “It could explode any second or it could just be a blip from Memorial Day.”

Now this is a key point: Experts like Keegan say we are still in the beginning phase, really. The virus hasn’t peaked yet. Salt Lake County has identified one new case related to the recent protests, and more are likely.

Things are going to get worse before they get better and our actions play a huge role on how steep the spike becomes.

If we stay on the current course, she said, Utah hospitals should be “just grazing” the maximum capacity needed to handle every sick person when the virus peaks. But if people continue to get complacent — if they stop distancing, if they don’t wear masks, if they aren’t washing hands and practicing good hygiene — the demand could exceed the available beds and strain the medical system’s ability to respond. That means the Utah of tomorrow becomes the New York of the recent past. Do you remember the stories told by Intermountain caregivers who worked in New York? They are haunting.

So far, Keegan said, people don’t seem concerned — “They’ve just willed it away,” she said — and each time she runs the numbers the curve ticks slightly higher and higher.

It may seem a little counterintuitive, but the reality is that we are all at much greater risk of contracting the coronavirus today than we were a month or two months ago.

That’s because the Utah Department of Health reports that there are currently nearly 6,000 active cases. That’s more than twice as many as there were on May 1, and these are the cases we know about. The bottom line is there are many more carriers who can expose you to the virus.

Combine that with the loosened restrictions and increased interaction and you get why your chances of getting the virus go up as we return to “normal.” Unfortunately, that can be lost in the state’s oversimplified color-coding system.

“I worry that the average person, when you tell them we’re going from orange to yellow or yellow to green sees that as a license to take things easier, right? Because that’s what it usually means,” Dr. Sankar Swamanithan, the head of infectious disease at the University of Utah, explained. “What it actually means is there are going to be more people out there doing more things they weren’t doing before and your risk of contracting the disease is going to go up.

“It’s a calculated trade-off between having a lockdown and having a functioning society, but there is going to be a price for it,” he said. “The only way to keep that price from being too high is to be vigilant.”

I’m not suggesting we put everything back on lockdown. While it made sense in the early stages of the outbreak, when we knew almost nothing about the virus and hospitals were scrambling to stockpile protective equipment, we have somewhat of a grasp on how we can control it.

For weeks during our lockdown, there was a steady drumbeat in conservative circles — including from some of the Republican gubernatorial candidates — that the restrictions imposed by the state were too draconian, too painful and that the government’s job should be to give people guidance and the best information and trust that they’ll make good decisions.

Now, as we teeter on this tipping point, the big question is: Will Utahns squander the sacrifices we made since March to combat COVID-19, or are we willing to do what we know needs to be done in order to save lives? It’s up to us.