If you’ve wondered what a surge of COVID-19 is really like — if you’ve wondered if it’s just like an especially bad flu season — listen to what Intermountain Healthcare physician R.J. Bunnell said after he came back from serving for two weeks in a New York City hospital that’s been overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

“I want to make it clear that we’re not dealing with the flu,” he said.

“The hospital where I worked had handled flu season year after year with 20 ICU beds, and this year for COVID-19 patients they needed 170,” said Dr. Bunnell, who’s one of 100 team members from Intermountain Healthcare who volunteered to go to New York to give the caregivers there a break. “The coronavirus has killed more people in New York City over the last two months than the flu did in the previous five years.”

But there’s good news in Utah. Our COVID rates — 7,384 cases and 80 deaths as of May 18, according to the Department of Health — are dramatically lower than national rates. Even though Utah has almost exactly 1 percent of the U.S. population, we have only 0.481 percent of the nation’s COVID-19 cases and 0.088 percent of the nation’s deaths.

Why is Utah safer than the rest of the nation? Because our preventive efforts — social distancing, avoiding large groups, masking, handwashing, and using clinically-based guidelines to govern how we reopen our businesses — have been effective.

Our message is: Now is not the time to relax. We’re not out of the woods yet. In Utah Jazz terms, relaxing our preventive efforts would be like not playing defense because we’re ahead at halftime. If that happens, we lose.

Now that Utah has switched to either yellow or orange status, or low and moderate threat level, many people are thinking it’s time to reopen our economy. But public health and economic recovery aren’t either/or priorities. If we focus on the economy without continuing our prevention efforts, we’ll move back to a higher threat level, and more stringent restrictions, again.

Utah’s economy and the health of our people are connected. If people get sick — or if they feel it’s not safe to go back in public on a limited basis during this phase of the pandemic — our economy, and our future, will suffer. People will be fearful about interacting with each other, shopping, and going back to school, and those are foundational elements not just of our economic climate, but of our lives.

We all need to be extremely careful — just like we have been since the pandemic started. Continue to practice social distancing, wear a mask in public, wash your hands often, and avoid large gatherings of people.

While you’re exercising appropriate precaution, remember the steps that can help you, your loved ones, and our communities stay physically and emotionally healthy. Find safe and creative ways to connect with neighbors, colleagues, and people in need. Enjoy nature. And remember that numerous sources of coping advice and emotional support are available.

As Utahns and as business leaders, we’re concerned with the health of Utah’s economy. But the best way to revitalize it is to continue to tenaciously protect the health of our people.

Gail Miller
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Gail Miller is owner and chair of the Larry H. Miller Group and serves as the chair of Intermountain Healthcare’s unpaid Board of Trustees.

A. Marc Harrison

Marc Harrison, M.D., is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.