Tribune Editorial: Utah is failing its pandemic test

Utah calls itself the Best Managed State™. But, after six months of experience, it is clear that Utah’s leaders have perhaps done the worst job of any state of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, endangering our lives and dragging down our economy.

Utah reported 911 new cases Thursday, a record high. Until Friday, when the number hit 1,117. On Saturday, it was 1,077.

New York, once the state at the dystopian epicenter of the pandemic, recorded 652 new cases Thursday and hasn’t had a single day with more than 900 cases since July 13. And that’s over a state population of 19.4 million people, compared to Utah’s 3.2 million souls.

On a per capita basis, Utah’s coronavirus infection rate over the past seven days is among the worst in the nation, double that of the much more densely populated California and much worse than states previously thought to be among the hardest hit, such as Texas and Florida.

Utah hospitals are not at capacity and deaths have not skyrocketed. But those trailing indicators can only get worse under the current circumstances.

A big reason for judging Utah’s pandemic response a failure is that it began with so many advantages that other states don’t have. Our population is younger and healthier. We have smaller degrees of income inequality, a robust health care system and people who are less likely to be packed together on mass transit or on crowded sidewalks.

But our battle against the pandemic has been marked by weak and aimless leadership. Metrics of success that aren’t met, keep changing and do little to guide anyone. Precious time and scads of public money wasted on promises of wonder drugs, substandard testing protocols and tracing apps that didn’t meet any reasonable standards and have attracted the attention of the national media and state auditors. And not in an admiring way.

Gov. Gary Herbert introduced Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, his preferred successor, as head of the state’s coronavirus task force, then shunted him to the side as things went bad, lest it hurt his political fortunes. The state’s health experts have been ignored or minimized in favor of politicians and business consultants. The Legislature even made the required qualifications to be head of the state’s health department less stringent in the middle of a once-in-a-century health emergency.

Herbert the other day lamented the fact — and it is a fact — that people who refuse to wear masks when in public and make no effort to keep physical distance from one another are displaying an appalling lack of concern for their fellow Utahns.

But you can’t force people to care.

That’s why we have government, and the office that Herbert holds and Cox covets. To mandate, as well as encourage, behavior that is necessary for the common good in times of crisis.

The logical next step is a statewide mask mandate and a statewide order prohibiting large gatherings outside of schools or businesses. Herbert’s quaint desire to let each local government make up its own mind about such things has been tried and found wanting.

The test, trace and isolate protocols promised months ago are still a crying need. Contracts for these services, awarded in a transparent manner to companies with a track record of success, are still needed. And advice from public health experts, of which Utah has many, must set our standards.

A long-overdue plan to allow all teachers and school staff to be tested for the coronavirus, even if they are not showing symptoms, is a small step in that direction. But, given the state’s spotty record on testing protocols, there is little reason to think this new system will help much.

New York’s ability to turn the pandemic around has been credited in large part to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a media-savvy personality who speaks smartly and carries a big stick. He shut down much of the Big Apple’s economy before and set firm standards for allowing it to reopen. New Yorkers know Cuomo is fully capable of pulling the plug again if the public fails to observe the rules — mostly masks and distancing — and objective metrics show the pandemic is staging a comeback.

It is time for Utah’s leaders to follow that example.