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Robert Gehrke: Utah’s worst coronavirus outbreak hasn’t peaked and everyone seems to have given up

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

For seven months now, I’ve been nagging anyone who will listen to take the coronavirus seriously.

It gets old, so let’s start with some good news: Utah’s doctors and nurses are doing tremendous, if exhausting, work in fending off the disease.

In the course of the pandemic, thanks to better treatments such as antiviral drugs, steroids and convalescent plasma, our health care professionals have shortened the average hospital stay to right around eight days.

This improvement lets hospitals move patients in and out faster, freeing up bed space. And that’s crucial because it looks like they may need all the space they can get.

Utah’s outbreak continues to break records. This week we’ve had our highest totals for a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and have recorded the highest one-week total to date, despite doing 3,000 fewer tests this week than last.

Our infection rate is double what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and White House Task Force set as the threshold to be considered a hotspot. According to the task force’s latest report, Utah is in the “Red” status statewide, as are seven counties.

The report also notes the state isn’t protecting long-term care facilities, with a growing number of new cases among nursing home residents and an alarming increase among staff.

The virus is now in the prison, where 196 inmates tested positive, the homeless shelters, and even the Salt Lake City police force, where 16 officers tested positive and more than 50 are currently quarantining.

Hospitalizations are surging, as we knew they would. On Wednesday, we set a new record with 226 people currently hospitalized, an increase of nearly 40% from just two days ago.

Deaths appear to be rising, as well, with one Utahn dying from COVID-19 about every four hours over the past three days.

“We are feeling the stress of a very full hospital and having to actually defer and delay some episodes of care to make sure we can take care of all the patients presenting with coronavirus,” Dr. Michael Good, head of the University of Utah hospitals said in a weekly update.

Meanwhile, the state Health Department reports there are nearly 21,000 active COVID-19 cases, also a record, meaning roughly one out of every 160 Utahns is infected right now. And they’re spreading it. As of Tuesday, the rate of transmission is alarmingly high, with every two sick people on average infecting three more.

To put it bluntly, the risk of contracting coronavirus is higher than it has ever been and, by the way, the flu season is just getting going.

And what has been the response from elected officials? Not much.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall asked Salt Lake County to request moving the city to a modified “orange” status, a move meant more to send a message than impose new restrictions. Sports, for example — like the University of Utah — would be able to play, but without spectators.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson (in the midst of a reelection campaign) doesn’t think a change to orange would accomplish much and is unwilling to follow suit, opting instead to encourage people to be more responsible with how and when they gather, since the data shows social settings are the leading source of spread.

“I’m not taking anything off the table,” Wilson told me. “We’re just carefully evaluating what’s going to work. I don’t want to do something just to make a statement unless that statement leads to a behavioral change.”

Salt Lake County Council Member Shireen Ghorbani disagrees and says something — anything — has to be done.

“There is something significant about that change from yellow to orange,” she said, noting any orders can be tailored to have minimal harm on businesses and reflect what we’ve learned about the pandemic since March.

“At this point, we haven’t even hit the ramping up of flu season,” she said. “We might have hospital capacity but we may not have health care worker capacity. I worry what the next few months look like if we don’t get this under control now.”

Gov. Gary Herbert hasn’t done anything aside from encourage people to be careful since he moved Provo and Orem to orange and cajoled the Utah County Commission to implement a mask mandate two weeks ago.

Since Utah County’s mask mandate took effect Sept. 23, the average daily number of cases there has fallen by nearly 100 per day — potentially further proof that masks work.

But while cases in Utah County are declining, Davis County, which doesn’t have a mandate, set a new single-day record for cases on Tuesday, then broke it on Wednesday.

I’ve written before about some steps that could be taken: Impose mask requirements in counties deemed hotspots under the White House criteria, move high schools and colleges online until the spread subsides, institute mandatory pooled testing to protect teachers, restrict in-house dining and possibly close bars, and restrict the size of public gatherings to prevent super-spreader events.

To Utah officials' credit, they at least aren’t acting like President Donald Trump, aggressively undermining the pandemic response he botched so badly in the first place — calling it a “miracle from God” that he got COVID-19 and urging his followers not to fear the virus.

But if our leaders are unwilling to act, that means we’re on our own.

The good news is that, to one degree or another, this has been about personal responsibility from Day One. We all know what we can do to protect ourselves, our family members and our friends and neighbors.

But more than seven months into this ordeal, are we willing to do it?

State data indicates that mask compliance has never risen much above two-thirds, and the recent White House report shows Utahns mobility is rising, indicating less social distancing and increasing the potential of spread.

So it’s gut-check time. Do we have the compassion and toughness to persevere and do what needs to be done to fill the leadership vacuum? Because if we are unable or unwilling to do that, we are in for a long, dismal October — not to mention a lot more of my nagging.

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