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Kristen Cox: What Utah did right during COVID

We tested, reached out to the private sector and were careful with lockdowns.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A TestUtah COVID-19 testing site sits alongside Utah Valley Pediatrics in Orem, Feb. 6, 2021.

Avoiding the endless political food fights over COVID requires not only staying out of politics and media but everything related to public health. That needs to change because public health works best when it involves open debate.

I witnessed early COVID decision-making in Utah. The best leaders were open to discussion and debate. They recognized the diverse, sometimes contradictory views of healthcare and public health experts. They also recognized the need to protect lives and livelihoods along with the education of our kids, mental health concerns, and many other factors that contribute to quality of life.

We are learning more about the past two years but our Utah leaders adopted more balanced and complete solutions than leaders in other states. What our leaders delivered served Utah’s citizens well. Recent studies show how well Utah performed. The evidence is not only in our mortality rates but also in how we safeguarded public education and local economic growth.

What we did right falls into four categories:

First, we adopted widespread, easy-to-find COVID testing — even for those who were asymptomatic. Rather than using testing simply to look back and see what happened, Utah used testing to get ahead of the spread and mitigate its transmission in real-time.

Second, we opened our COVID response to private-sector expertise. Our public and private health entities either didn’t have the capacity to meet testing needs or actively resisted scalable, accessible testing. It took time for naysayers to see the value of widespread testing to combat spread, but Utah leadership saw that value right away.

Without engaging the private sector to help scale up needed operations and infrastructure, Utah’s citizens would have paid the price. While well-intentioned people involved in the testing response worked tirelessly, competing factions were quick to criticize decisions. Emergencies are a time to lean into expertise and capability, not launch politically motivated criticism. We saw too much of the latter but our leaders resisted those critics’ voices.

Third, we ended shelter-in-place lockdowns early. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have added to the growing international research showing strict lockdown policies failed to deliver. Utah understood that a well-run operation along with early testing could move us out of shelter-in-place quickly and save lives—which it did.

Fourth, Utah leaders recognized the need for actionable data, not just anecdotal evidence of rule compliance. We heard daily about public compliance with masks, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. In the early days, we heard nothing about state-level turnaround times for testing. If a key goal was protecting hospital capacity, one could assume real-time data drove decision-making. This was not the case.

Instead, in the early days of COVID, too many experts relied on predictive modeling data designed to forecast the future and simply could not produce data designed to manage the present. Predictive models proved insufficient during a dynamic COVID response. Fortunately, Utah pivoted early and our leaders accessed real-time data on several key fronts reaching every corner of the state.

The leaders orchestrating the state’s response knew that better operations could reduce the burden on the public. Their focus on operations carried through to scaling up vaccination rollouts, delivering new treatments, and turning around testing quickly. Our state’s leaders took a very proactive and aggressive stance to help protect at-risk populations and underserved populations.

While Utah’s response to COVID wasn’t perfect, we outperformed almost every other state. Today we have lessons to carry into the future. Our leaders learned to move quickly, welcome debate and reject false choices between protecting lives or livelihoods. They learned to leverage the operational supply-side capabilities of the private sector. They learned the efficiency of managing risk over trying to eliminate it.

While leaders in other states doubled down on a single mantra, “Follow the experts,” I was always left wondering, which ones? Expert opinions were all over the map and frequently changed. The lesson here? Embrace different perspectives and opinions, don’t stifle them.

When the earliest days of COVID felt like a 24/7 stream of contradicting opinions, the worst of our leaders fueled public distrust with finger-pointing, self-serving political agendas, and myopic decision-making. The very best of our leaders stayed humble and kept an open mind. I’m grateful to live in a state where top decision-makers adhered to a balanced approach.

Kristen Cox

Kristen Cox is the former executive director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget under then-Gov. Gary Herbert. She is an expert management consultant, published author and advisory board member at both the Western Governors University and Brigham Young University. She is also an instructor at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business and the executive director of their Government Improvement Initiative.