Tribune Editorial: Audit of Utah pandemic response must go further

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert, right, is joined by Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as they speak at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 13, 2020.

It is a phrase that seems to be found in just about every report about the latest scientific or medical research.

No matter the subject, no matter the depth or credibility of the report, no matter whether they seem to have finally determined coffee is good (or bad) for you or you need to get more (or less) time in the sun, the article always seems to end with the disclaimer, “More research is needed.”

The other day, the office of Utah State Auditor John Dougall released what it called a “limited review” of the state’s efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The 23-page document (not counting the reply from the governor’s office) had a lot to say, good and bad, about how Gov. Gary Herbert, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and their coronavirus task force handled the outbreak.

The clear takeaway from the report, though, is that more auditing is needed. A lot more.

We need investigations, not only by Dougall’s office but also by the Legislature’s internal auditors and the Legislature itself. The review must be a deep one, with an open review of all documents and emails and interviews with everyone involved.

A deep and ongoing review of the state’s pandemic response is far more important than the normal government audit. Beyond measuring the fairness and efficiency of state spending, this work will tell us how we have done, and how we should do better, about a matter that is not just dollars and cents, but life and death, the health of our economy and the education of our children.

All of which have been seriously damaged by Utah’s poor management of this crisis.

Auditors recognized that the pandemic was an emergency, and emergencies sometimes need quick responses that don’t always look good afterward. But they also expressed concern that the state’s response was neither well coordinated nor properly documented, with uncertain chains of command and questionable decisions involving millions of state dollars.

The most obvious example of a shortcoming is that there is still no conclusion as to just who, exactly, committed the state to an emergency, no-bid, $800,000 stockpiling of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. That concoction, promoted mostly by politicians in Washington and in Utah as a miracle treatment, has since been all but discredited by the medical profession. After a flurry of criticism, the deal was canceled and the state got our money back.

The auditors also noted that the kind of coordination that should be expected during a health emergency — between, for example, the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget and the Utah Department of Health — was seriously lacking.

Also lacking is any record that the state made any serious effort to compare the quality and prices of the goods and services it purchased, in many cases from high-tech firms associated with the Utah business alliance called Silicon Slopes. The audit raised the concern that relationships with Herbert and other state officials, not the best use of taxpayer dollars, drove the decisions.

The TestUtah system that was supposed to boost the number, accuracy and speed of COVID-19 tests has been problematic from the beginning, with state and federal officials still not certain of the system’s effectiveness, providing no obvious benefit beyond testing regimes within the capabilities of the state’s established health care providers. And a contact tracing smartphone app has fallen far short of promises.

Both cost the state millions of dollars. Neither seems to have been worth it. Except, perhaps, to owners and investors who watched stock prices skyrocket on word of those products' successes, at least as described by Herbert.

The audit also noted that, despite warnings from in-house experts issued in 2007 and 2019, the state did not take necessary steps to prepare for the high likelihood of a pandemic. It is crucial that we not be caught flat-footed again.

It is common among government agencies to prepare for emergencies, not only by stockpiling consumable materials but also by assigning jobs to public agencies, rather than to subordinates who are in the middle of a campaign, who lack any epidemiology, medical or crisis management skills, who politicize the effort and undermine the integrity of the state during the worst crisis of our lifetime. The state must also research and prequalify private-sector contractors — providers who can be called on to quickly provide bids for goods and services in a crisis.

Neither the most recent flash audit of Utah’s pandemic response, nor the more in-depth reports that will come after it, can be allowed to gather the proverbial dust on the shelf. A pandemic will happen again, and we must do much better.