As flu season nears, Utah leaders define success as keeping COVID-19 death rates below 1%

(Spenser Heaps | Deseret News, pool) Gov. Gary Herbert adjusts his face mask after his monthly news conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020.

State leaders on Thursday rolled out a new COVID-19 plan that they say will see the state through the fall and winter — and unveiled an online scoreboard for holding them to account.

The plan rests on two major goals: Keeping the state’s case fatality rate below 1% and holding the unemployment rate below 4.5%.

“We are concerned now as we head into fall. We have schools now reconvening. We’re going to have more indoor activities now and less outdoor activities,” Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday during a virtual news conference. “And so we’re having some very important and deep discussions on what do we do now? What’s the next chapter?”

The case fatality target in the new plan, called the Utah Leads Together Accountability Framework, is supported by the secondary goals of keeping new daily case counts below 400, maintaining an intensive care utilization under 85% and controlling the size of outbreaks at care facilities and businesses. For the state’s economy, the supporting goals are to restore consumer confidence to pre-pandemic levels, reduce unemployment claims to less than 50,000 a week and boost job training.

Officials have launched an online dashboard that displays the goals and whether the state is meeting them. The report will be updated weekly on Thursdays.

(Screenshot of state's new unified response scorecard) Utah on Thursday launched its new website for coronavirus data and goals.

The state is currently meeting most of the targets, with a death rate of 0.78% of cases and unemployment of 4.5%, according to the scoreboard. Unemployment claims, now at 54,661, are slightly above the goal of 50,000, while consumer confidence is lower than officials would like.

Failing to meet the objectives for new case numbers or fatality rates won’t necessarily trigger a specific state response, said Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox. It will set off a discussion about what officials and community members can do to get back on track, he said.

From there, recommendations will go to the governor or local health officials for possible action, Cox added.

The plan is the product of weeks of discussion about streamlining the state’s fight against COVID-19 and determining how to measure success.

Over the last six months, the state’s pandemic response has ballooned, as the number of commissions and community partners have piled up, Cox explained. What started with a single task force led by Cox has mushroomed into a group of about 250 people who meet three times a week to strategize about the virus.

“With complexity comes the temptation to lose focus,” he said. “When you’re working on all the things, sometimes we lose sight of what matters most.”

The new framework, he said, is an attempt to refocus on those essentials and on the chain of command inside state government. Herbert is at the top, setting and executing policies with assistance from Cox. The Legislature’s job is to set policy, allocate funding and act as a watchdog to monitor results. A unified command structure, led by Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson, oversees both the health and economic response and reports to Herbert and Cox.

A slew of state agencies, community partners, local officials and outside commissions feed into the unified command operation, according to the plan.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said the scoreboard will help rally state residents for the ongoing battle against the pandemic and its economic consequences.

“The public not only deserves to be informed about what’s going on as we lead through this, but all Utahns need to be involved and do their part in this effort,” the Kaysville Republican said. “We absolutely cannot get distracted.”

The plan also sets up an array of “lead measures” that undergird each of the goals and give officials a sense of whether they’re heading in the right direction. For instance, to keep the daily new case counts under 400, the plan calls for turning around 90% of the state’s COVID-19 tests within 24 hours and reducing levels of the disease in ethnic and racial minority communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Richard Saunders, acting director of the Utah Department of Health, said state leaders chose and set the plan’s targets after consulting with epidemiologists, physicians, government officials and others in meetings that started in late June.

Other measures include:

Strengthening consumer confidence is an area where public health intersects with economic interests, said Taylor Randall, dean of the University of Utah’s David Eccles School of Business. People won’t feel comfortable patronizing businesses that don’t follow hygiene protocols, he said, comparing the economic reopening to a walk over an ice-covered lake.

“Our economy is sitting on the edge of a frozen lake right now,” said Randall, who’s helping lead the state’s economic response to COVID-19. “What do you do when you walk out on a frozen lake? You step and you listen for a crack. If it doesn’t crack, you know you can proceed.”

Officials on Thursday said some of their goals are subject to change as the pandemic wears on. For instance, Saunders said once it’s clear the state can sustain a daily new case count below 400, officials might lower the target to 350 or 300.

Saunders said there’s no fixed standard for determining when the case count has stabilized at a lower level.

“It’s just when we’ve achieved it and been able to sustain it for perhaps two, three weeks. Somewhere in that neighborhood,” he said. “It’s a subjective valuation based on the other surrounding measures as well."

Correction: 3:45 p.m. p.m., Sept. 10 • An earlier version of this story misstated the plan’s goal for testing turnaround times.