Health care workers are the 2020 Utahns of the Year

Salt Lake Tribune honors those at the front lines of the battle against the coronavirus.

(Tribune file and courtesy photos. Illustration by Francisco Kjolseth) Health care providers are named The Salt Lake Tribune's 2020 Utahns of the Year.

An emergency alliance of Utah’s nurses, physicians, assistants, therapists, EMTs, technicians, food service workers and housekeeping staff has spent the past nine months together under constant siege, in an unrelenting battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Not for their benefit, but for ours.

As the vanguard of the battle against the pandemic, the front-line health care workers of our state are The Salt Lake Tribune’s 2020 Utahns of the Year.

Some of us deeply appreciate not only the exhausting hard work our health care workers are doing, but also the very real personal risk they are taking on our behalf. Others, not so much.

Our health care troops have not only had to do battle against a microscopic foe. They have also been surrounded by too many people who offer too little help, or actively try to make their jobs more difficult and dangerous. Efforts to politicize and monetize the crisis, even to claim that the whole thing is a hoax, have made everything worse.

It is not a hoax.

So far, the Utah Department of Health has counted more than 15,000 Utah health care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 and more than 360 have been hospitalized at one time or another. At least 13 have died.

Among those stricken by the coronavirus is Jill Hansen Holker. As explained by The Tribune’s Robert Gehrke earlier this month, Holker was a marathon-running intensive care unit nurse at Utah Valley Hospital before she caught the virus. Now she is far from home, awaiting a double lung transplant in a Florida hospital that specializes in such procedures. Friends have set up a GoFundMe account to help with what will be a long recovery and rehabilitation process.

Utah is fortunate to have two major health care systems, the University of Utah and Intermountain Healthcare, to see to our needs. What leadership we have seen on this crisis has come from the doctors and administrators of those and other medical centers, brushing past wishy-washy suggestions from elected and business leaders to plainly put the harsh truth before us.

Nurses, chief medical officers, mayors and others have pointed out again and again that the greatest threat to our community generally, and to health care workers in particular, is that our hospitals will become so overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 cases that not only those suffering from that epidemic, but also everyone else who needs medical care, won’t be able to get the care they need. The care they could expect to receive in normal times.

The rest of us have a duty to help the helpers. Wash our hands. Keep our distance. Wear masks.

Now that vaccines have been developed, front-line medical workers are rightly at the front of the line to receive them. But, again, it is not so much for their personal benefit as it is for the good of the community, to keep the hospitals open and saving patients.

It’s like when the flight attendant tells passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before helping someone else.

Naming the front-line health care workers as The Tribune’s 2020 Utahns of the Year is, we hope, an honor that will, in some small way, help those who risk their lives for their community to feel it was all worth it.