Next time Gov. Spencer Cox talks about how he values front-line health care workers, remember this simple truth: He could have done literally nothing, let Salt Lake County’s mask requirement go forward unimpeded, and overburdened hospitals would have benefitted.
Instead, the governor on Monday directed state agencies located in Salt Lake and Summit counties that they do not have to abide by the county health orders. Instead, he’s only making Utah’s COVID-19 situation worse.
It defies all logic. And, frankly, is gubernatorial malpractice.
Cox’s directive came as the state’s 7-day average case count approached 8,000 — more than double its previous peak. But that number is likely an underestimate, as more than 40% of patients who take a test are positive, indicating that there is far more infection than we’re testing.
The state’s epidemiologist, Leisha Nolen, warned that the number would climb much higher in the coming weeks.
Even if we accept that the omicron variant is milder and will require fewer hospitalizations, in just two weeks the number of patients in the hospital jumped nearly 30% from 427 to 552 — and we’re just beginning to see patients from the crush of omicron cases.
In Park City, more than one out of every 15 residents have tested positive in the last two weeks, an explosive spread that prompted the Sundance Film Festival to cancel in-person events.
And the University of Utah Hospital reported last week that more than 600 staff are out — sick or too exhausted and afraid to come to work — forcing the postponement of surgeries and other procedures. More than 1,000 are out in the Intermountain Healthcare system.
“In the ICUs, it’s really unrelenting in terms of the amount of work,” Dr. Todd Vento, an IHC infectious disease specialist, said Monday.
As Dr. Marlon Bishop, an emergency room doctor at Brigham City and Cache Valley hospitals warned, it’s not only about COVID-19 patients. If beds are full, treatment becomes impossible for people who have heart attacks or are in car accidents.
The university hospital was sending emergency patients elsewhere for hours over the weekend because they simply couldn’t accommodate them.
But Cox wasn’t alone. Senate President Stuart Adams and House Majority Leader Mike Schultz issued statements indicating they were unhappy with the county mask requirements and that they would take a close look at them — potentially overturning them legislatively.
Keep in mind that last year the Legislature passed a bill — and signed into law by Cox — that set up protocols intended to make it difficult for mask requirements to be put in place. It requires an order from the health department, approval by the county mayor and approval by the county council or commission which, in Salt Lake’s case, is controlled by a Republican majority.
Despite a deluge of hateful invective from the anti-mask crowd, Salt Lake council members Aimee Winder Newton and Laurie Stringham opted to let the order continue, for now at least, because area hospitals are indeed facing a major crisis.
The elected people closest to the people decided, and that should have been enough. But Cox and his legislative overlords can’t leave it alone.
Now, there is a question of whether Cox even has the authority to exempt state offices. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said the governor is overstepping his authority, that he can’t willy-nilly waive county ordinances and she may be right.
It never should have come to this legal posturing. This omicron wave should, based on experiences in other countries, be short-lived. But hospitals are pleading for some breathing room so they can do what they do best: save lives.
And while most of us are trying to do our part to help them, Cox made a brazenly political move that will only make it worse. It’s incredibly disappointing.
Last week I gave Cox a “C” grade for his pandemic response. Evidently, that was far too generous.