While Cox postures and legislators dawdle, Utahns are dying preventable deaths, Robert Gehrke writes

Here are five takeaways from Gov. Cox’s latest Covid briefing, including why he was wrong to go after “extreme maskers”

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

There’s really no other way to put it: Utah’s Covid situation is bad. And with nobody — not the governor or the Legislature or county councils — willing or able to do anything about it, it will likely get worse. Perhaps much worse.

That is, at least, my main takeaway from Gov. Spencer Cox’s hapless news conference Tuesday, where he offered nothing in the way of new measures to alleviate the growing crisis. Here are a few other observations from the dismal event.

Cox is blaming the wrong people. In his news conference Tuesday he clumsily tried to “both-sides” the highly charged issue of masks saying both anti-maskers and “extreme maskers” need to “get over ourselves.”

I get that he was trying to sideline the most militant voices and appeal for “grace” as he put it to prevail.

His comments, in which he also downplayed the effectiveness of masks, miss the point. Yes, perhaps “extreme maskers” are passionate, and perhaps they get on his nerves when they clamor for him to do more.

The people who are wearing the masks are the ones doing what he and medical experts have urged them to do for months. They’re also usually the ones who have gone and been vaccinated. They are not the ones helping to spread the virus across the state, infecting children, cavalierly endangering the vulnerable and clogging our hospitals.

The “extreme maskers” are not the problem.

Cases will climb. That is especially true among children. The Utah Department of Health estimates 39,000 children age 5-17 will be infected in the month of September alone. That is almost 1,300 per day — as many kids as were infected in the first NINE MONTHS of the pandemic.

Even with the very low hospitalization rates we’ve seen among young people, that would translate conservatively to 234 children hospitalized in a single month.

We have been remarkably fortunate to only have one child die during the course of the pandemic. With that kind of case surge, it is likely children will die. Currently, Salt Lake County is reporting one child under the age of 4 is on a ventilator.

I hope these projections are wrong. Maybe Utah will turn a corner and things will level off, as we’ve seen in states like Louisiana and Arkansas that experienced explosive growth. But I’m not optimistic, and hope is not a plan.

Hospitals are overwhelmed. Doctors begged Tuesday for the public to help — get vaccinated and wear a mask.

Last week, for the first time since the pandemic, Cox said that there was not a single available bed in the state’s referral intensive care units — the ones that take care of Utahns who are seriously ill, from Covid or otherwise.

A rural hospital trying to transfer a sick patient had to wait hours for a bed to open up. Intermountain Healthcare’s top-end ICU units are at 103% capacity, according to Intermountain Healthcare CEO Marc Harrison.

It will likely get worse. Over the last several weeks, pediatric cases have made up about one in five overall cases. If cases in the general population grow at anywhere near the same rate they are projected to grow among children, the surge we saw in December and January will look piddling in comparison.

The strain of caring for those patients is taking a brutal toll on health care workers. Nearly 150 Utahns died in the last month, roughly five every day. Based on the number of cases we had in August — people who will be dying in September — we should brace for 200 or more Utahns dying in the coming weeks.

The vast majority of them will be unvaccinated.

Republican legislators don’t care. That may seem harsh, but I can see no other explanation for their stubborn inaction.

Talks over the past two weeks between the governor and legislative leaders have been fruitless. Cox said House Speaker Brad Wilson and Senate President Stuart Adams are dead-set against any mask mandate in schools.

Wilson bullied school districts into in-person classes at the end of last year. House Majority Whip Mike Schultz is threatening retribution against Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall for trying to protect students and parents in her community.

They have done nothing to help alleviate the crisis and plenty to stymie any kind of response. They stripped Cox of executive powers and proven the stupidity of having an unwieldy and unqualified legislative body try to react to a public health emergency.

Instead of leadership we have people like Sen. Todd Weiler posting a snarky Twitter poll asking how many children have died in the United States.

Cox did offer one compromise Tuesday that has merit: Requiring schools where 2% of students test positive to wear masks until levels drop back down. If legislators really believe kids are impervious to the virus, then they shouldn’t balk at mask protocols for those schools that truly have problems.

It will be among the solutions he’ll offer this week when he meets with lawmakers, but I’m not optimistic they’ll bite. It’s more about politics than people.

What I anticipate will happen is Republican legislators will meet behind closed doors so the public can’t see them dismiss the severity and downplay the death toll, and then they will do nothing. I hope I’m wrong. But if I’m not, Utahns should not forget or forgive their callous indifference to the suffering of the state’s citizens.

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