Democrat Chris Peterson says Spencer Cox should be booted from COVID-19 leadership role as cases surge

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson speaks at the Utah Foundation Anniversary Luncheon at the Grand America Hotel on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. Peterson on Friday called on Gov. Gary Herbert to remove Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox from a leadership role in the state's COVID-19 response amid soaring case numbers. Cox is the Republican nominee for governor.

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Peterson is urging Utah’s governor to strip Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox of his leadership role in the state’s COVID-19 response as new case numbers soared to record levels for the second day running Friday.

The job of the lieutenant governor is to oversee elections and lobbying in the state, Peterson said, arguing that Cox — the Republican nominee for governor — has “crossed out of his lane and usurped the function of the Department of Health” by heading up a state coronavirus task force.

“Lt. Governor Cox is a good person, but, with respect, his expertise has been elections and lobbyists," Peterson said in a news release. “He should stick to that and let our medical professionals and scientists do their job.”

While the coronavirus task force mentioned by Peterson has been dormant for several months, Cox has continued to lead other aspects of the state’s campaign against the virus.

Herbert’s office said Peterson’s request that Cox be removed from leading the task force demonstrates that the Democratic candidate hasn’t “kept abreast” of changes in the state’s coronavirus response — namely, that the task force hasn’t been a significant factor in Herbert’s decision-making since late March when the unified command structure took over.

“This shift enhanced collaboration between public health and safety experts, who meet daily to set the course for Utah’s COVID-19 response,” the prepared statement said. “That command reports directly to the governor and the lieutenant governor, as is appropriate in this crisis.”

The statement also noted that Cox is a constitutional officer and, as such, would continue to play a leadership role in the pandemic response.

“The constitution sets those terms, not the politics of the day,” the statement continued.

Cox’s campaign responded by saying that the state’s fight against COVID-19 is not political or partisan.

“Gov. Herbert and Lt. Gov. Cox are working closely with medical professionals, policy makers and citizens across the state to protect public health and rebuild the economy,” Austin Cox, the lieutenant governor’s campaign manager, said in a prepared statement.

On Friday, Utah’s new daily case count surpassed 1,000 for the first time in the pandemic, breaking the previous record set Thursday when officials reported 911 new cases. Gov. Gary Herbert called the numbers “alarming” and said the trend was making him “seriously question" if warnings and public education are working to curb the spread of the virus.

In a news release, Peterson noted that the rolling seven-day average of positive test results is also setting new records in the state and that the spike in case counts has happened in the span of one week. The summertime surge in case counts was gradual by comparison, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn has said.

The Democratic candidate, a University of Utah law professor, has for months called on Herbert to issue a statewide mask mandate, his news release noted, and impose more stringent measures to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The release also took aim at Cox and the Herbert administration for the state’s controversial purchase of an anti-malaria drug as a possible treatment for COVID-19, even as medical experts were advising against it. The state later canceled the order and received a refund. Herbert and Cox have said they didn’t know about the order until after it was placed.

“Hundreds of Utahns will die alone and in pain and our economy will continue to struggle," Peterson said, “if we do not immediately begin following the advice of scientific experts.”

Peterson also criticized the state for testing delays and spending on the Healthy Together mobile app, which was supposed to serve as a contact tracing tool. Utah has paid a tech firm more than $4 million for the technology to date, even though the app has helped contact trace in only a handful of cases.

Officials say the mobile app is also a valuable resource for public health information and prompts users to take a symptom survey.