A power struggle over Utah’s pandemic response: 5 key findings from hundreds of emails.
Read the full story in The Tribune’s new weekly edition and online Sunday, detailing how the Governor’s Office of Budget and Management played an outsize role in our COVID response.
(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune). Rebecca Searcy tests a patient for Covid-19 at the Intermountain Healthcare Taylorsville Instacare, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020.
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Leaders from the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget (GOMB) played an outsized role in the early days of the coronavirus and into the summer.
GOMB officials didn’t have a public-facing role in the health crisis. But emails show they were engaged in drafting the Utah Leads Together framework
(a comprehensive plan to manage the coronavirus) that was approved by Gov. Gary Herbert’s administration and were involved in decisions about which counties could move to a less restrictive color-coded restriction phase and when.
GOMB frequently exhibited skepticism about the value of medical expertise in handling the crisis.
The office’s approach called for clamping down quickly on the disease, flooding the state with testing and swiftly returning to work.
Former GOMB leader Kristen Cox wrote in one email that she saw members of the medical establishment as “part of the solution,” but cautioned that “relying on them exclusively has put our country into a serious and avoidable crisis.”
[Read the full report here
Public health leaders indicated they were frustrated by GOMB’s involvement and felt edged out of major decisions.
The health department and multiple health staffers complained that GOMB initiatives — including TestUtah and the Healthy Together app — distracted them as they were scrambling to respond to the pandemic.
“We have zero control over and limited visibility on TestUtah.com
processes and procedures,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn wrote in an April email.
Health workers also suggested they felt pressured to make an outward show of support for those initiatives, even those that were dogged by controversy later. Contracts weren’t canceled because of the need to “save face for Kris,” Dunn said in one email.
GOMB denied pressuring other agencies to promote Healthy Together and TestUtah and said the governor’s office and health department leadership were also behind the initiatives.
GOMB leaders made repeated attempts to subvert or resist health care officials.
Business consultants employed by GOMB fought for “surgical” interventions that would protect the highest-risk Utahns and argued against broader-based public health restrictions that they believed would cripple the economy.
Emails obtained by The Tribune also document GOMB’s attempts to reach inside the Utah Department of Health itself, at one point trying to influence contact tracing protocols by deploying a consultant to “edit and add to” the state’s script.
“GOMB ... can provide input on the contact tracing process,” Dunn wrote in an email, “but ultimately it is a public health activity and they need to defer.”
The budget agency, in a statement to The Tribune, denied pressuring other agencies.
Budget officials had the governor’s ear and filtered information he received.
Cox, who is not related to Gov.-elect Spencer Cox, advocated for a special dashboard to be created for Gov. Gary Herbert and directed her team to build him one with four data points that would help measure the state’s progress. Emails show GOMB staffers were also responsible at some points for developing Herbert’s “talking points.”
In one email, Cox explicitly advised Herbert’s top aides to rely solely on research findings presented by her agency and UDOH as officials made policy decisions.
A spokeswoman in the governor’s office said in a statement that Herbert has leaned primarily on the Utah Department of Health for information on the pandemic. GOMB played a “minor role,” she said, in providing Herbert with statistical updates and helping validate the claims and data of other entities.