Tribune Editorial: Public health failures are the fault of public officials

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) TestUtah Covid-19 testing at the 800 North location in Orem, Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

Public health is the responsibility of the public sector.

When an epidemic spreads through the community and ripples across the economy, it is not the duty of individual patients or doctors or hospitals or laboratories to get a handle on the situation and slow the progress of the disease. It is the duty of the government, at the highest levels, to act.

The official Utah response to the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen far short of what it should be.

Far too much of the approach taken by Gov. Gary Herbert, his designated successor Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and others in top positions has been to offload what should have been government responsibilities onto a pop-up consortium of private sector companies and leaders in an apparent attempt to curry favor in the local pharmacy and technology sectors and give Utah’s pandemic response the shiny glow of a tech start-up.

It’s not working.

The latest reason to call for some wholesale changes to the process came out Monday, when it was revealed that a state official in charge of the state’s own public health lab was summarily fired in what she, reasonably, sees as retaliation for her opposition to the use of another lab for processing many of the the crucial COVID-19 tests being carried out throughout the state.

Dr. Robyn Atkinson-Dunn was clearly doing her duty when she raised objections to using the lab favored by the TestUtah public-private partnership — the one at Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem — because that lab had recently been found wanting by a federal review and its use described as “a potential public health disaster” by a local physician specializing in infectious diseases.

The possibility that this is all a big turf war cannot be altogether discounted. But that is all the more reason why the Herbert/Cox administration’s eagerness to farm out so much of the screening and testing process was a big mistake.

The whole TestUtah program has been questionable from the beginning. At first, there was reason to believe that the program was less about testing and tracing COVID-19 cases than it was a front for promoting an untested alternative use for an old malaria treatment that was being touted by the president of the United States, a few Utah public officials and at least one pharmacy that was cornering the market in a certain variety of the medication.

Later, the plot thickened as TestUtah objected to a proposed monitoring of its lab procedures and found it difficult to explain why its rate of negative results was out of whack with the results returned by other labs.

Utah has been rather successful — and lucky — in its attempts to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus infections. The health care system has not been overwhelmed, as happened in places from New York City to Italy.

But the daily count of new cases and deaths continues to be less than reassuring. Nearly 300 workers at a meatpacking plant in Hyrum have tested positive. The state’s moves to reopen its economy feel unnecessarily risky when based on a testing regime that isn’t trusted by those best in a position to know.

It is easy to point fingers at various entities, in and out of government, up and down the chain of command.

But this lack of faith in Utah’s coronavirus response efforts is properly fixed at the very top of state government.

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