That wan fluttering noise you hear coming from the direction of the Capitol building is the sound of the state of Utah waving the white flag of surrender in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s tragic. It’s disgraceful. And there is lots of blame to go around.
Gov. Spencer Cox and the new state epidemiologist, Dr. Leisha Nolen, let it officially be known Friday morning that there are so few tests available in the state, and so many people who reasonably fear that they have contracted the coronavirus, that anyone who is feeling the kind of symptoms associated with the disease should just assume they are infected and stay home.
The elderly and those with underlying conditions are still encouraged to test. But the hope that the state’s schools could remain open with a test-to-stay policy (show a negative test and go to class, show positive or refuse and go home) can only be dashed when there are no tests to be had.
The Salt Lake County Council came within a single vote Thursday of overturning the County Health Department’s mask mandate, which would have been tragic. The Davis School District was so flustered by the lack of test kits that it momentarily told students who had tested positive for the virus to come to school anyway. (A mistake rectified within a few hours.)
All this news is shocking even as it is not at all surprising. For more than two years now, officials at all levels and in all branches of our government have missed chance after chance to get a handle on this rapidly spreading and rapidly evolving virus.
Rather than call for the kind of patriotic coming together that Americans responded to after Pearl Harbor and 9/11, we were assured that it was not a real problem, that it would “magically disappear,” even that it was all a hoax, a plot to extend the power of the federal government and/or further enrich Big Pharma.
Government officials, mostly but not exclusively Republicans, were apparently determined not to be caught governing in the face of this challenge. Any move or recommendation to mask up or, when safe and effective vaccines became available, to make vaccination a requirement of admission to public places and society in general was shouted down as an unwarranted imposition on individual freedoms.
Instead we were left to listen to various forms of foolishness and misinformation, promises of being rescued by everything from a bleach cocktail to horse dewormers to, most recently, drinking our own urine.
So now we are free all right. Free to fend for ourselves. To watch our children lose weeks, months or more of their precious educational opportunities. To wonder whether it is safe to go to work or to the store or to sporting events. To see businesses close for want of employees or lack of customers.
Cox and others have correctly said that the best tool for fighting the spread of the virus, individually and collectively, was to get two — then three — doses of the vaccine. That is absolutely the correct advice.
But Cox and so many others have not carried the courage of their convictions. Cox, state legislative leaders, our congressional delegation and Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes have so proudly stood against the kind of vaccine mandates that civilized society has used for generations to effectively wipe out everything from polio to diphtheria to the measles.
President Joe Biden tried to pull a couple of useful levers by ordering vaccine mandates for health care workers and vaccine-or-test rules for workplaces of more than 100 employees. The U.S. Supreme Court this week upheld the former while quashing the latter, foolishly holding that a communicable disease is not a workplace hazard.
Not that Biden is blameless in all this. Seeing the obvious reluctance of so many people to get, or to require, vaccinations has only now moved him to push to make tests and the most effective kind of masks available to everyone. It’s the right thing to do, but months late.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson Friday offered an absurd, and all too typical, defense of the government’s failure to act.
“This pandemic has proven to be anything but predictable,” Wilson said. “We all recognize that so we need to be very flexible and adaptable as we move through this current wave.”
But the omicron variant now rippling through humanity was predicted. There is consensus among epidemiologists (long before COVID) that viruses tend to mutate into less potent but more easily transmissible variants, which is exactly what happened. And the challenge is the same as it was with alpha and delta: Most people weather it OK, but the serious cases are still enough to overwhelm hospitals.
We might have headed off omicron with a herd immunity-level of vaccinations, but that would have required a vaccination mandate, which our leaders refused. Instead, we get, “No one could have seen this coming.” That is patently untrue. They were told what to do, and they refused.
Were Utah a truly civilized place, the governor’s next move would be to find a way to mandate the kind of mass vaccination campaign we should have launched a year ago, going as far as to deploy the National Guard to ensure that people without proof of vaccination would not be allowed, well, anywhere.
But it may be too late for that, politically and medically.
In the meantime, get vaccinated. If you are sick, stay home. And let your elected officials at all levels know that you expected them to lead us out of this mess, not stand by and meekly express concern.