Robert Gehrke: Utah leaders dropped the ball on their coronavirus response. Here is how it happened.

Robert Gehrke

On Friday, Utah reported 676 new cases of the coronavirus, pushing the state total above 20,000 for the first time and meaning in less than a month we doubled the number of cases.

How did Utah get where it is today? Let’s take a look …

In his Utah Leads Together Plan, released March 24, Gov. Gary Herbert offered clear criteria that would drive his decision to move from an Urgent Phase into a Stabilization Phase and finally, a Recovery Phase.

To move from Urgent to Stabilization, for example, Utah would need to maintain a rate of transmission below 1, that means a sick person would only infect one other person. To do that, he said, Utah must not have more than 800-1,000 cases between March 16 and April 28.

Utah had 4,426 new cases in that time period.

It also included deployment of hydroxychloroquine, but we know how the story of that failed treatment played out.

The Stabilization Phase was expected to last 10-14 weeks and the recovery phase 8-10 weeks. All told, it was a time horizon that optimistically would have stretched from March 16 to mid-September — at the earliest.

Version 2 of the plan, released April 17, kept the same timeframe but introduced “risk levels” — red, orange, yellow and green.

The goals to move from red to orange were a transmission rate below 1, a rate of positive tests below 10%, less than 60% occupancy in intensive care units and 80% of cases originating from a known source (a way to measure the efficacy of contact tracing).

For most of April, Utah met the ICU goal, the transmission rate was above 1 but just by a little, positive tests were about 4%, and known cases were about 80%. It was close enough.

On May 1, Herbert moved most of the state to orange and we entered the Stabilization Phase, about two weeks ahead of the most optimistic target. Then two weeks later, he moved most of the state from orange to yellow, which is where we are today.

After that rapid move from red to yellow, with no time to assess how the first step affected the viral spread — remember, it takes a week for cases to show up — things took a turn.

The transmission rate has not been below 1 since moving to orange. Recently, Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, said the figure was at 1.35.

ICU utilization is now at 63%.

The rate of positive tests has risen to around 7% and for the past two weeks has averaged 11.4%.

Since making the move, the percentage of known exposures hasn’t been higher than 73%. Last week, it was 63%.

Right now, Utah meets NONE of the criteria for moving from red to orange, much less orange to yellow, yet most of the state remains at yellow and large portions of rural Utah have been moved to green — still three months ahead of the most optimistic target for entering the “Recovery Phase,” and case counts are blowing up.

Over and over throughout this process, Herbert has stressed two concepts: First, that data would drive the decision making and, second, that these risk levels are not a on-or-off switch, but a dial that can be adjusted up or down as the data dictates.

Right now, the data dictates the dial be at red for large portions of the state. Yet here we are.

Why? Part of it is certainly that we know more about the virus now. Utah’s mortality rate has been among the lowest in the nation and that’s a good thing — assuming we can sustain it.

But it also seems that Herbert hasn’t been able to withstand the intense pressure he has been under to get the economy moving again — and fast. The Legislature bears some of that blame, hammering the governor for being too heavy-handed in his closures and creating its own commission that recommended moving to green well ahead of the governor’s wishes, even as cases were beginning to erupt.

It seems clear that the medical experts — people like Dr. Dunn — are being drowned out by those clamoring for loosening restrictions and freeing the economy.

Having given into that pressure in the first place, what do you think the chances are he can fight against that tide and impose new restrictions beyond letting Salt Lake County require masks?

I’d say slim to none. And Slim is in the ICU with coronavirus.

I’m not saying Utah needs to be back at red — the entire notion of color coding is a sloppy system that sends the wrong signals to residents, anyway. What I’m saying is we need to pay attention to the data and health experts and respond accordingly.

Utah had a plan to battle the coronavirus. It was a reasonable plan. Herbert has called it the first such plan and the most comprehensive in the nation. It had the right metrics and provided a realistic time horizon for implementing the change.

Then politics happened, we ditched the plan and now we’re watching the consequences unfold.