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Utah’s omicron response is a failure with plenty of blame to go around, Robert Gehrke writes

Yes, omicron may be short-lived, but it will also be a painful ride for many and Utah leaders did nothing to control it

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

If you haven’t been paying attention maybe you missed it, but we’ve found ourselves in a bit of a pickle when it comes to COVID-19.

What’s worse, nobody seems to care.

If you need a barometer for how bad things have gotten, consider that for closing in on two years now, Salt Lake Tribune graphics guru Chris Cherrington has been charting the cases in Utah. And there have been some peaks and some valleys along the way, but more or less the y-axis — the uppy-downy measurement on a graph for those who didn’t like math — has stayed more-or-less the same.

But now Chris has had to change it to accommodate 5,000 cases, 6,000 cases, 8,000 cases and 10,000 daily cases.

The state was among the worst in the nation in the omicron spread. All of this was before Utah literally broke its testing capability.

Ponder that.

Two years into a pandemic, with a couple months to prep for the omicron spike everyone saw coming, we found ourselves so woefully unprepared — both at the state and federal level — that we’ve told people to forego testing, assume they’re sick and to just stay home.

Frankly, while it may seem daft, telling people not to test probably makes sense, because the case counts we were getting for those tens of thousands of tests were utterly meaningless. As large as the cases skyrocket, we knew that it is a ridiculous undercount — between the people who were testing at home, the people who refused to test because of stubbornness or politics and the overall 40-plus percent positivity rate.

Chris might as well have set the peak of his graph to “you don’t really want to know” and just left it at that. Bury your head in the sand.

And that’s exactly what Gov. Spencer Cox and the legislative leaders who have co-opted our pandemic response have done — if you can even call it a response anymore. Now it’s just a search for ways to protect people who don’t want to get vaccinated and punish individuals and businesses who try to do the right thing.

But, wait. Everyone says omicron is “mild,” right?

Well, yes and no. If you have a virus that is half as likely to land you in the hospital, but you have four times as many people infected, you’re going to see twice as many people going to the hospital. And we’re seeing that surge now.

Last week, we shattered our all-time pandemic record for COVID-19 hospitalizations. And shattered also applies to what we risk doing to our health care system, which is seeing doctors and nurses laid up by the virus or quitting from exhaustion.

We set new records last week, as well, for the number of kids with COVIds-19 at Primary Children’s Hospital.

And while, statistically speaking, yes, most people are less likely to die from omicron, if we look to other places that are ahead of us in their curves — the United Kingdom, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, places that are already seeing a downward trend in cases — they have all set records in hospitalizations and are currently recording more Covid deaths than we saw in the absolute worst stages of the delta wave.

Maybe we’ll be lucky. Utah has a younger, healthier population. We are also considerably less vaccinated than those states, and we know the vaccines deter the worst outcomes, including death. So good luck, I guess.

This omicron wave is going to be short-lived. Summit County, the first county in Utah to get socked by omicron, appears to already be on the way down. The rest of the state will follow before very long.

We knew that was going to be the case from watching other countries spike and then fall, which makes the decision not to take any short-lived precautions even more baffling.

Criticize Gov. Gary Herbert’s pandemic response all you want. When Utah was in the throes of earlier spikes and threatening to overrun hospitals, at least he had the backbone to discourage large gatherings.

What do we get from Cox? A short-sighted decision to exempt state facilities — including the driver’s license division and liquor stores — from county mask requirements and a pronouncement that suddenly masks don’t work against omicron.

Every doctor he talked to, the governor claimed, said as much. And that is weird because every doctor I talked to said he’s wrong.

Sure, maybe cloth masks aren’t as useful with a strain as transmissible as omicron. But if you had to be in a room full of people — oh, I dunno, say you were a teacher — would you feel better if everyone else in the room was wearing a mask or not? What if they were wearing an N95 mask? Maybe one of those million N95 masks that Cox promised the state would provide, but ended up gathering dust on shelves.

Now we have bars that are jam-packed, but schools that are forced to go remote because they don’t have enough healthy teachers to stay open. Make that make sense.

To be fair, the Legislature has been an enormous hindrance, siding with the anti-mask rhetoric, obstructing efforts that might encourage vaccinations and forcing schools and colleges to be unmasked and in-person.

Meanwhile, the most definitive action from the Cox administration was a news conference thanking dōTERRA for donating a bunch of antiseptic wipes to the anti-COVID-19 cause — a useless gesture against an airborne virus.

On second thought, those DoTerra wipes might be useful after all. Maybe they’ll get rid of the bad taste left by our state leaders’ abject failure.

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