Chris Peterson: It is time for change in Utah’s COVID response

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Esther Ortiz working at a COVID-19 testing station at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Monday, Oct. 12, 2020.

As Utahns face the eighth month of the worst public health crisis in a century, we all find ourselves worried. Worried about our health. Worried about our businesses. Worried about our loved ones. Worried about our future. Amid all this concern, we have looked to our leaders for guidance through tumultuous times. Unfortunately, in the most important year of their administration, Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox did not rise to the occasion.

Despite shutting down our economy and spending over $100 million in taxpayer funds, Utah is now unequivocally one of the worst COVID-19 hot spots in America. COVID-19 is now the third leading cause of death in our country and is causing severe health long-term consequences for thousands of Utahns.

Since July, I have called on the current administration to implement a statewide mask mandate and other measures that would have prevented loss of life, suffering and economic turmoil. In the past month, Utah has not had a day under 500 new cases, and many of them have yielded case counts two to three times as high. We all waited for the Herbert-Cox administration to jump into action as the situation worsened. More family members became ill and economic pressures increased, but, for months, our leaders failed to act.

Finally, on Oct. 13, Herbert released new public health guidelines, but they are too little, too late. While these new guidelines will implement mask mandates for the majority of Utahns over the next two weeks, the plan comes up short in other key aspects of handling the pandemic.

As part of my campaign to be your next governor, I believe I owe it to you to provide an alternative plan. My full plan, which you can find at PetersonforUtah.com, details the actions I would take upon becoming governor, but I want to focus on the components that stand in greatest contrast to the latest Herbert-Cox plan.

First, we need to establish a faster, more robust testing system with a goal of 1.5 tests per 1,000 people and universal turnaround times under 24 hours. Utahns can’t make informed decisions that protect their co-workers and loved ones without timely, accurate information. Our current positivity rate of about 14% indicates the virus is continuing to spread unchecked through our state. Utahns should not have to guess if they are infected.

Second, we need to dramatically improve our contact tracing ability, including a minimum of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people. The state should ensure sufficient case managers, care resource coordinators and community health workers to help all Utahns quarantine when they need to do so to protect others. Let’s temporarily put unemployed Utahns to work tracking down this virus. Utahns have every right to feel as safe as possible.

Finally, Utahns should be able to count on their government to give them a hand up in tough times. Right now that includes more financial assistance for small businesses, increased access to protective equipment for front-line workers, free access to COVID-19 related health care for those without insurance and an audit of public school safety plans for our teachers and kids.

In addition to mismanaged public health guidelines, the Herbert-Cox administration has failed to provide transparency on their expenditure of taxpayer funds. We’ve spent millions of dollars on ineffective testing. And Utah is still spending nearly $10,000 per day on a cellphone contact tracing app that does not work as intended.

These are funds the state auditor says were “steered” to certain vendors, some of which “the governor and lieutenant governor had a relatively close relationship with.” This warrants a civil investigation in the attorney general’s office to determine how to stop the financial bleeding and whether taxpayers deserve a refund.

This has been a difficult year. And our elected officials have somehow made it more so. Now, the election gives Utahns a choice. If I am elected governor, I will protect the public by leading us out of this public health and economic crisis. Utah has so much to be proud of, but we have issues that need improvement.

If you think it’s time for a change, I ask for your vote.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Chris Peterson speaks while debating Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Cox and Peterson are rivals to become Utah's next governor.

Chris Peterson is the Democratic candidate for governor of Utah and the John J. Flynn Endowed Professor of Law at the University of Utah.