Robert Gehrke: The vaccine rollout must work better than Utah’s early coronavirus response

Gov.-elect Spencer Cox should appoint someone to lead the vaccination effort.

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

Within the next few weeks, Utah will get its first batch of coronavirus vaccines — roughly 64,000 doses that will be given to front-line health care workers.

Then, over the next few months, hundreds of thousands more will start to roll in, with priority given to nursing homes, police, firefighters and (hopefully) teachers.

Such a large-scale distribution, taking place simultaneously all across the country, may well be among our greatest logistical challenges.

It will take time and we’ll have long, grueling months between now and then, but for now it is our glimmer of hope heading into a long, dark winter. There is urgency to get it distributed; it is critical to get it right.

And on that point we need to learn from the missteps we experienced early in Utah’s pandemic response.

Remember when the head of the state Health Department was sidelined due to health problems, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox was put in charge of the COVID-19 task force that hasn’t really formally existed in six months; then he kind of disappeared during the election and Jefferson Burton became the face of the response?

That was confusing.

Meanwhile, you had Kristen Cox, the governor’s head of budget, working behind the scenes and the Legislature chiming in from time to time, and Jess Anderson, the head of the Department of Public Safety, leading the Unified Command — which wasn’t even stood up until nearly four weeks into the pandemic.

It was disjointed and hard to track — and that’s not me saying it. All of this was laid out in an audit by Republican State Auditor John Dougall, showing no one taking responsibility for key decisions.

Then, after Burton left, Rich Saunders was brought in to lead the Health Department and the Legislature changed the law to let him stay on even though he didn’t have the required public health experience.

It’s no wonder what we’ve ended up with were constantly muddled messages — going in big on worthless hydroxychloroquine and tracking apps that never worked; metrics created and discarded; a color-coded system that tells people things are fine when the danger is rising; school guidelines that turn out to be mere suggestions; a Unified Scoreboard that only occasionally gets updated (publicly, at least) then replaced; gathering restrictions never intended to be enforced get rolled out with emergency cellphone alerts and then rolled back just as quickly.

Maybe internally things have been great, purring on like a machine lubed to perfection with hydroxychloroquine and essential oils. But from the public’s standpoint, you can understand why people are confused.

The leadership on the vaccine rollout has to be focused and the message clear.

To that end, the incoming Cox administration should move quickly to appoint someone who answers directly to the new governor to spearhead the effort and make sure it goes off without a hitch.

That means coordinating with the pharmaceutical companies, federal agencies and local health departments; handling the prioritization of who gets it and when; and leading the messaging and the logistics of making sure we get the doses where they need to be, as soon as possible.

Don’t call it a “czar,” or the anti-vaxxers will lose their ever-loving minds, but someone who can take clear leadership of the day-to-day operations. We need a clear leader who is in charge.

There are probably dozens of people who could do it — someone like Brian Shiozawa, a physician, former state senator and regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It could be Rich McKeown, who was Mike Leavitt’s chief of staff as governor and when Leavitt was President George W. Bush’s HHS secretary. Or how about Erin Fox, director of drug information at the University of Utah?

Another lesson we should learn from our early missteps is that well before we start actually vaccinating Utahns, we need to lay the groundwork in underserved communities.

When the pandemic erupted, we were too slow to focus preventive measures and informational outreach to minority communities, and they paid a price. At one point, Hispanic and Latino Utahns were five times as likely to contract the coronavirus as whites. Through time and effort, the rates have been brought down closer to the overall average.

National studies have shown that Black and Latino adults have lower rates of vaccination than whites. So if you have a community with generally lower vaccination rates and higher COVID-19 infection rates, they can’t again be an afterthought when it comes to rolling out the vaccine.

Finally, there will be the inevitable debate over to what extent the government should be able to require people to get vaccinated — and this, no doubt, will be one of the most hotly debated topics in the upcoming legislative session.

How should we respond?

For now, we shouldn’t.

Over the next four to six months, there will be enough people who want a vaccine who can’t get it, so there’s no point wasting our time trying to convince people who read the latest Bill-Gates-mind-control-hoax-pandemic blog that they should remove their tinfoil hats and step away from the computer for a bit.

Vaccinations for school students aren’t an issue yet and likely won’t be for a while. The vaccine has not been approved for children and studies are just getting underway to make that possible. Will employers be able to tell employees they have to get vaccinated? Will people have to get vaccinated to travel on an airplane or maybe visit Disneyland?

Those are bridges we’ll have to cross at some point. For now, we need a laser-focus on the job ahead and the opportunity to have a summer where life can start getting back to normal.