Tribune Editorial: Utah must be better prepared for the next pandemic

Questions about hydroxychloroquine, a malaria drug that's been controversially touted as a treatment for COVID-19, have been added to the assessment form Utah patients take to obtain a coronavirus test via TestUtah.com

The old joke in government circles is that it is silly to call a process, or an agency, “emergency management,” because, if it can be managed, it isn’t an emergency.

Still, that’s what government is there for and, in the way the highest levels of Utah government have managed the coronavirus emergency, there are signs of arrogance and bad judgment that need to be thoroughly examined so we can take away some useful lessons for the next time.

And there will be a next time.

Things are certainly not as bad as they could have been.

State and local government, especially in the population centers where COVID-19 first reared its viral head, have moved to stop the spread and bend the curve through stay-at-home orders, closing schools, canceling mass events and rolling out testing. Gov. Gary Herbert’s task force came up with a reasonable set of measures to help determine when and where those limits might be eased.

Utah has not crashed its medical infrastructure which, in all places, has been the greatest fear.

Still, all the success, and good luck, accompanying Utah’s coronavirus story have been dogged throughout by a series of events that suggests a state caught flat-footed and an administration far too eager to embrace snake-oil cures and shoddy practices that opened the door, and the state’s coffers, to people and organizations that may have been trusted far more than they should have been.

Clearly, state officials were too trusting of rumors that a particular drug, long used to treat malaria and lupus, might be a cure for coronavirus symptoms. Far too trusting, especially in view of the fact that the primary proponent of using hydroxychloroquine and related compounds for this off-label purpose is a federal chief executive who lies as easily as most people breathe.

Despite the denials of many involved, reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune has made it apparent that a prime motivation for the initially volunteer effort that came to be known as TestUtah.com was to promote as a treatment for coronavirus a medicine that one Utah businessman who was involved was also busy cornering the market on.

Someone at the state, we are still not sure who, ordered $800,000 worth of the stuff, even as the Legislature earmarked another $8 million for further supplies. All that has since been canceled, wisely, in light of evidence that hydroxychloroquine not only does not treat coronavirus, it also has potentially deadly side-effects.

Meanwhile, TestUtah.com shifted from a philanthropic quest to a multi-million-dollar cash cow for its creators, not only here but, also through questionably no-bid contracts, Nebraska and Iowa — where officials apparently trusted the fact that the program had been implemented in Utah as evidence that it worked.

Now there are legitimate concerns that the TestUtah process is not as reliable as other testing regimes, a concern only deepened by the fact that TestUtah has declined to participate in a state evaluation of all such testing programs.

This is not Utah’s darkest winter. But it has not exactly been its finest hour, either.

In times of crisis, a state must be able to act quickly and with a minimum of bureaucratic bother. But it must also act wisely and put its faith in experts who are in positions of public trust, not, or not only, in fast-talking PowerPoint presenters.

Examinations by State Auditor John Dougall and the Legislature are warranted and planned. A system by which the state pre-qualifies vendors, takes bids, stockpiles equipment and otherwise plans and buys ahead must be created.

The point is not just to save money, as important as that is. It is to save lives. And it will be that much more difficult for the state to do that essential job if the people don’t have faith that its decisions and pronouncements are straight and honest.