Commentary: Utah needs a detailed plan to fight COVID-19

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Angela Dunn, Utah State Epidemiologist, speaks at a news conference in the state's Emergency Operations Center on Thursday, March 12, 2020 addressing the current state of COVID-19 in Utah. Representatives from the Utah System of Higher Education, the Utah Board of Education, Utah Jazz, local health authorities and Utah Department of Health were also present.

It is hard to believe how quickly the world and our lives have changed since Jan. 19, when the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States. It has been just over two weeks since Utah reported its first case on March 6 and, Sunday, we just experienced our first fatality. The state is facing its greatest challenge in decades.

The COVID-19 outbreak is happening so fast it has been challenging to formulate a thoughtful plan that prioritizes the public’s health and safety while simultaneously balancing other societal concerns. But it’s past time for Utah to have our own actionable plan that is clearly communicated, based on the best science that we have.

Just last Friday, state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said, “The rate of (virus) increase has been consistent this week, it’s been about a 50% increase this entire week from day to day.”

Simple math shows what will happen as the exponential growth continues. Utah had 112 cases Friday. The same growth rate means Utah will have about 1,900 cases by next Friday. The following week will end with 33,265 cases. Assuming 10% of those cases will need critical care, Utah will need 3,326 beds. Time is of the essence.

We cannot afford for state officials to waste one more day without a detailed plan, including timelines and specific guidance for the citizens of Utah to make good decisions and stay safe. We need to immediately adopt the approaches that worked in other countries who have successfully managed the COVID-19 disaster. Like South Korea and Singapore, we can balance public health with economic stability by prioritizing the following four things:

  1. Protect the “at risk” population. Those over 60 and those of any age with serious underlying medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease should remain in self-quarantine. Those not “at risk” should continue to practice social distancing and a heightened level of personal hygiene including disinfecting frequently used surfaces, washing hands regularly, and avoiding face touching.

  2. Testing. We are way behind on testing and some of that lost time we can never make up. Without testing, we can’t manage this pandemic. We need to know who is actually sick and who isn’t. Once we know, the sick can self-quarantine and others can continue to live their lives without fear and uncertainty. We need a plan that clearly outlines how and when we should test people and in what priority.

  3. Medical Supplies. In order for the incredible people of our health care industry to do their jobs, we need masks, gloves and other protective equipment. Utah needs to produce our own ventilators and seek out our own suppliers. We cannot solely rely on the federal government nor hope that Utah will be a priority as medical resources become scarcer. We are an industrious state and people with a thriving biotech base. It should be mobilized now.

  4. Hospital Capacity. Now is the time to prepare for hospital overflow, to ensure we have adequate hospital facilities (and possibly other spaces) for the critically ill. To do this, we need to immediately identify and prepare other sites of care including areas for recovery. The homeless and other at-risk populations are going to suffer if they are infected and need a place to stay.

In addition to the health crisis, lack of leadership in this emergency is leading to one of the largest economic downturns in Utah’s history with businesses going bankrupt, tens of thousands of Utahns unemployed and placing the lives and livelihoods of every-day Utahns at great risk.

It’s becoming time for state government to assess the situation and give us a solid plan of attack along with daily briefings informing Utahns of what is happening, what the state is doing, and what progress is being made.

“Flattening the curve” is a great strategy for mitigating the spread of the disease, but it alone isn’t as effective if we don’t also ramp up testing to identify those infected before symptoms and unknowingly infecting more. South Korea deployed a rapid testing approach that drove the number of cases up but slowed the spread by identifying cases more quickly. CNN.com reports that Seegene, which produces COVID-19 test kits, is now producing 10,000 kits a week and each kit can test 100 patients. So, it is making enough to test one million patients each week, at a cost of under $20 per test. The article estimates that if we were using Seegene’s system we could be testing one million citizens per week.

The United States had about a six-week head start before the virus came to our shores, and it was largely wasted. Utah is now about halfway into the same head start with the disease coming inland from the coasts. We cannot afford to waste more precious time. The strategies currently being deployed in Utah (closing schools, restaurants and bars and limiting social gatherings) may have been an acceptable first reaction given our lack of preparedness, but we need to add mass testing now. We still have time to ramp up production of test kits and test citizens quickly so they can self-quarantine and we can treat everyone who is infected.

The state should be actively looking for a solution to find tests, including talking to Utah-based companies, like Co-Diagnostics, who is already manufacturing and selling tests all over the world. And we shouldn’t let the hope for a perfect solution get in the way of a good solution.

We urge our officials to find ways to make testing available quickly and easily rather than find reasons not to. With testing in place, we can begin to restore peace of mind to our citizens. And, we can begin to move back to a functioning society and economy along with the quality of life that makes Utah the best state in the best country in the world. We pride ourselves in Utah on being different, pragmatic, thoughtful, and problem-solving. The following weeks and months will be hard for every one of us at times, but Utahns can do hard things.

It’s our legacy, and now is the time to act.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah state Sen. Dan Hemmert

Utah state Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah state Rep. Mike Schultz

Utah state Rep. Mike Schultz, R-Hooper

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State Auditor John Dougall, pictured at the Utah Capitol, Thursday, May 23, 2019.

Utah State Auditor John Dougall

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer) Real estate executive and Republican candidate for governor Thomas Wright

Thomas Wright, Republican candidate for Utah governor