Robert Gehrke: Utah’s slow coronavirus reaction should be a cautionary example to other states

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

Utah leaders love to tout the state as a model for the nation, but as coronavirus cases climb, we’re more of a cautionary tale.

It took two months of skyrocketing spread of COVID-19, more than 83,000 new cases, nearly 250 deaths, before Gov. Gary Herbert announced — in dramatic fashion via an Amber Alert-type text blast Sunday night — that he would impose new safeguards.

Doctors and nurses toiling in intensive care units stretched to the breaking point and facing a looming crush of patients that may overwhelm their capacity to provide care, had begged and pleaded for action for weeks.

When it finally came, it was a relief.

Herbert’s orders require masks statewide, give state and local agencies the authority to enforce the mandate, prohibit social gatherings with people you don’t live with, stop the sale of alcohol at bars and restaurants after 10 p.m., and put a two-week moratorium on school sports (except football) and extracurricular activities.

It will take a couple weeks before these measures work — if they work.

Taken as a whole, it’s classic Herbert: cautious, full of compromises and half-measures aimed at causing as little disruption to the economy as possible while maybe doing something to address the problem.

And we should be clear, these rules don’t draw from all of the science or the lessons we’ve learned in recent months.

One example: A study published this week in the journal Nature found that restaurants and bars, places of worship and gyms disproportionately contribute to the spread of the virus. This is not really all that new.

But with Utah’s new rules, gyms are unaffected, church services are exempt, organized public gatherings fine. The only change that impacts a business is that restaurants and bars can’t sell alcohol after 10 — as if the spread of the virus was dependent on having a drink at a certain time of day, rather than the people.

The big ramp-up in rapid testing is a positive move and will help us at least understand the scope of the problem and hopefully take steps to limit further spread.

But we’re still treating elementary students the same as high school students, when the data shows us they are not the same and those 15- to 24-year-old students continue to drive the spread of the virus.

“The high school population is mobile, they work and they are able to be more socially active and they are involved in a lot of extracurricular activities that the elementary and junior high students just aren’t involved in,” said Mary Hill, epidemiology supervisor with the Salt Lake County Health Department.

In fairness to Herbert, he suspended most extracurricular activities for two weeks except, of course, football. Can’t touch football. The 10 p.m. cut-off for booze could reduce problems we’ve seen at dance clubs. Closing churches raises First Amendment problems but I’m not sure why the mask mandate doesn’t apply there. And churches should — if they haven’t already — be moving online on their own.

He is also trying to put some much-needed teeth into the enforcement of the restrictions. The organizers of mass gatherings, like the massive Halloween party held in Lehi, should be criminally charged, as should organizers of other events that blatantly defy the law and endanger public safety.

Whether that happens, will be a big question in the coming weeks. The Iron County sheriff has already said he won’t enforce the requirements and it’s a safe bet he’s not alone in his indifference to the law and the safety of his residents.

Right-wing fanatics are again protesting the governor’s actions, at state buildings, at his home and once again at the home of Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, who they paint as an evil covert agent deployed to Utah by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On top of that, the governor is facing the inevitable blowback from conservative legislators, like Rep. Phil Lyman, from San Juan County, who must have received his medical training from Trump University.

Lyman wants to convene an emergency session of the Legislature and roll back all the governor’s safeguards. “This is not acceptable. … Please, let’s follow South Dakota’s lead, not California’s.” Lyman said, apparently ignorant of the fact that South Dakota’s indifference has turned the state into a COVID hellscape, with the second-highest per capita case rates and death rates in the country several weeks running.

Don’t listen to Phil.

The package the governor proposed is not tyranny. Had he imposed them weeks ago it might have been enough to stave off the crisis we’re now seeing unfold statewide.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued similar orders Wednesday, as his state has witnessed 128 cases per 100,000 people over the past week and saw positive tests climb to 3%. That is the time to act.

Right now, Utah has nearly 600 cases per 100,000 people and well over 20% of tests come back positive.

Over the past seven days, we have tallied 18,235 new cases. The week before that it was about 12,700, an increase of 44%, which doesn’t include the thousands of cases our testing is missing.

There are nearly 42,000 Utahns with known active cases of COVID-19. By the end of this week, there will be enough people with active cases to fill the University of Utah’s Rice-Eccles football stadium.

Over the next two weeks, before we see if the governor’s safeguards have any effect, we should expect to see cases rise at an alarming pace and those people who have tested positive in the last week or two will start showing up in hospitals.

In the last week, there have been 640 COVID patients admitted to the hospital, just 40 below the total for the entire month of August. And the death toll will mount.

The CDC estimates that 256 Utahns will die over the coming four weeks — although its forecast has been low recently. Another widely cited model by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimates we’ll see nearly 600 deaths in Utah between now and the year’s end.

If this column happens to reach people in states where cases are just starting to climb, don’t wait to act.

For us, it’s too late. Our opportunity has passed and now we are just trying to do what we can to control the damage in the devastating month we have ahead.