Justin F. Thulin: ‘Personal responsibility’ is no match for COVID-19

(Rick Bowmer | AP, pool) Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox wears a mask as he waits before the start of a Spanish language briefing on the state's efforts to fight COVID-19 Thursday, June 25, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

The 10 states with the highest per capita rates of COVID-19 infection — the COVID-19 “Hall of Shame” — from top to bottom are North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Nebraska and Iowa. Republican governors in nine of these states have preached “personal responsibility” as their initial approach to control the coronavirus. That, however, simply isn’t good enough.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, teared up describing his state as “caught in the middle of a COVID storm.” Appropriately, he has encouraged mask-wearing and social distancing. But, expressing a common feeling of Republican-led governments, Burgum said, “It’s not a job for government” to put legal limits on reckless behavior. Really?

Governors, our states' own laws indicate that you know very well that “personal responsibility” alone does not work in most situations regarding protecting citizens' safety. States do not give us the freedom to drink as much as we want and drive. States do not give us the freedom to drive 50 mph in a school zone or 100 mph on the highway. States do not give smokers unfettered freedom to smoke inside public venues. States do not give us these “freedoms” precisely because those freedoms limit the freedom of others to live a long and healthy life.

On July 15, in the face of escalating COVID-19 case counts, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, publicly admitted the failure of personal responsibility in controlling the coronavirus. He issued a partial mask mandate for indoor public spaces in any Montana county with four or more active COVID-19 cases.

It’s far past time that Utah also acknowledge loudly and publicly that “personal responsibility” doesn’t stand a chance against the coronavirus. We can no longer listen to the Utah Legislature’s “liberty loving” Coronavirus Task Force. Mindless platitudes like “personal responsibility” and “liberty loving” are killing Utahns. In the face of a pandemic that has killed well over 225,000 Americans, and a Utah record of almost 2,000 new COVID cases on Oct. 22, it’s time we start protecting the freedom of all our citizens to live as long a life as possible.

COVID-19 is raging uncontrolled in Utah. Currently, Utah has its highest ever test positivity rate of 17.5%. The state epidemiologist has repeatedly told lawmakers that a positivity rate of 5% or lower would signal that the virus is under control. In addition, Utah just had its highest seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases at 1,507 cases per day. On Sept. 2, it was 401.

In response, on Oct. 13, Utah’s leaders introduced a mask requirement for all but eight of the state’s 29 counties that lasts for two weeks. The health order also includes restrictions on the size of social gatherings and updated rules for social distancing for restaurants and bars dependent on whether a county has a high, medium or low transmission rate.

Unfortunately, this is a case of too little, too late. First, the coronavirus doesn’t obey county lines, and forgetting that inevitably will lead to a frustrating game of whack-a-mole as the virus moves effortlessly from infected to uninfected counties.

Second, if one intends to win this game, citizens, when in public, need to wear masks both indoors and outdoors. Wearing masks indoors is most important, but wearing them in outdoor social gatherings will help, and will improve overall compliance because there will be no confusion as to when a citizen should wear a mask.

On Oct. 23, in the face of a record high 85,000 new national COVID-19 cases, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that he favored a nationwide mask mandate. Utah should not wait. We should stop swinging at the coronavirus knuckleball after it is already in the catcher’s mitt, and instead get out in front of the curve with a state mandate of our own. As in Wisconsin, the mandate should include a stiff penalty for noncompliance. Just as in the case when dealing with inebriated drivers, sticks are needed to enforce compliance.

The good news is that masks will not slow the economy. Instead, they will more durably sustain it until an efficacious vaccine can be made and widely administered.

In sum, Utah has the seventh worst cases-per-capita rate of COVID-19 in the nation. The current plan is an improvement, but it simply isn’t good enough.

Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, as head of the Utah Task Force on the Coronavirus, your insufficient advice and ineffective plans are a major reason we are doing so poorly relative to other states. Should you become governor, Utah will be better served if you ignore the Legislature’s “liberty loving” Coronavirus Task Force, and instead listen more closely to Anthony Fauci and your scientific advisers.

After all, citizens deserve the “freedom” not to be infected by the ill-informed or selfish citizens who don’t wear masks.

Justin F. Thulin

Justin F. Thulin, M.D., is a dermatologist practicing in Salt Lake City.