Robert Gehrke: Gov. Gary Herbert failed and now the coronavirus is burning through Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

If a wildfire was blazing through the state, threatening the health and lives of thousands of Utahns, what would you do?

Mobilize fire crews? Sound the alarms? Evacuate people? Run air tankers and cut fire lines?

Or would you do nothing?

Because nothing is exactly what Gov. Gary Herbert has done for 10 days as COVID-19 has burned through the state.

Really, we could have seen this coming as early as Sept. 1, when the state had four days averaging about 470 new cases, nearly a hundred more each day than our average at that point.

By Sept. 10, it was clear we were in trouble when we registered 656 cases — infections that we know were contracted days earlier — and testing was actually falling. Sewage monitoring was signaling problems, as well. Provo’s wastewater system recorded some of the highest levels of the virus to date anywhere in the state on Sept. 8, but the warning was ignored.

In the ensuing week, as case totals climbed at an unprecedented rate, all we got from the governor was a furrowed-brow lecture and praise for our low unemployment rate. The Utah State Fair went ahead as planned, with 6,000 attendees each night, made possible because the governor loosened restrictions in Salt Lake City a week earlier.

On Wednesday, Utah announced 747 cases. On Thursday, it set a new record with 911, and Herbert said at his weekly news conference that he would meet with his advisers and take the next four days to come up with a plan.

The next day, Utah shattered the day-old record, adding 1,117 cases. On Saturday, it was 1,077. Sunday, it was another 920.

No rush, governor. Take your time. We’ll just wait over here trying our best not to get sick.

The reality is we have a plan — several, in fact.

The White House coronavirus task force recommends “red zone” states implement universal mask requirements, close bars, restrict indoor dining, and educate vulnerable individuals on how to protect themselves.

The state’s own phased coronavirus response plan, which has gone through multiple iterations, offers clear direction on what restrictions should be in place, most of them similar to the White House’s guidelines — like limiting the size of gatherings and indoor dining — in certain scenarios, direction that the state has consistently ignored.

The governor has refused to enact any new restrictions. The plans are there. What is missing is a governor with the courage to lead.

In fairness to Herbert, last week when I saw the surge building and warned people to take it seriously, I wrote that “government rules and enforcement can’t solve the problem.” That was stupid. Government can’t solve the problem alone, but it has to do something.

Since the alarms sounded Sept. 10 up through Sunday, we have recorded 7,753 new cases. Utah has the seventh highest infection rate in the United States and the fourth highest rate of transmission. Like Utah, the states ahead of us have refused to take steps to limit the spread.

The best time for action was last week. The second best time for action is now. Here are the steps the state ought to take immediately.

• Herbert should implement the White House recommendations — close bars, restrict occupancy in restaurants, limit the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings, and yes, finally, impose mask requirements in counties with infection rates above 100 cases per 100,000 people per week. As of Sunday, that included Utah, Cache, Millard, Weber, Sanpete, Juab and Wasatch counties, plus Salt Lake, where masks are already required.

Some in Utah County won’t like it. Too bad. If it improves public safety, it needs to be done. The absurd alternative from Utah County leaders, according to a FOX 13 report, is to give coupons for goodies to young people wearing masks.

The Utah County sheriff says he won’t enforce a mandate. I guess he’s fine with his county being engulfed. But enforcement in Salt Lake County has not been a problem. Most voluntarily comply, and that really is the goal.

• The state Board of Education should move high schools in hot spot counties online until the spread is controlled. Colleges and universities should do the same.

Infection rates among elementary school students have been low, but the 15-24 age group is driving the COVID explosion, accounting for about 42% of cases. It won’t stay confined to that group and has already started to spread to older Utahns who will have to be hospitalized and some of whom will die.

Local districts won’t do this on their own. Canyons District initially ignored the state’s recommendations — maybe polite suggestions is a more apt description — and kept high schools open despite having enough cases that the state said they should close. Corner Canyon High School only closed after a teacher was hospitalized.

With the full-blown community spread we have among most of the state’s population, there is nothing schools can do to keep out the virus. The only sensible option is to move education online in those counties the White House considers hot spots — Utah, Cache and Salt Lake counties, and probably Weber and Davis, as well.

The state should implement weekly pooled testing of EVERY teacher, as well as students in college dorms and other concentrated populations.

If we want schools to stay open (which may already be impossible), Monday should be test day for the teachers. A developing testing tactic is to pool samples from large populations with low rates of infection. That way testing is cheaper and easier, especially with saliva testing now available. If the pooled sample comes back positive, individual samples can then be tested.

Young students may be less vulnerable, but teachers are susceptible, and we need to try to keep the virus out of their ranks.

The same tool could easily be deployed to monitor for the virus in college dorms and anywhere else with concentrated populations.

• Brace for what is next.

We’ve already started to see cases jump up in older populations, and those older populations will get sick and need to be hospitalized. Despite the lull in COVID cases, our intensive care beds are already above 71% full (most of them not with COVID patients).

We dodged a bullet in July when our hospital capacity was threatened and maybe we will again. But we need to be prepared for the worst and have a plan for the flood of patients that is likely to come right as flu season hits full swing.

Do I think the governor will do most of these? Probably not. He wants buy-in from local communities and is paralyzed by the thought of upsetting legislators.

And that’s tragic, because while Utah waits for Herbert to muster the courage to lead, we are losing time and COVID is burning through more and more of the state. This will forever be a stain on his legacy.