Phony optimism won’t get Utahns past COVID, Editorial Board writes

Gov. Cox is not helping by saying that anyone should ‘take this disease a lot less seriously.’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox receives his first COVID-19 vaccine from Utah County Health Department nurse Sage Hall as state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson watch, Mar. 25, 2021. Cox, who received his vaccine live on camera Thursday, said there's been "great demand" for the COVID-19 vaccine throughout Utah, and credited vaccinations for the declining coronavirus case counts.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is not going away because we tell it to. It is certainly not going to loosen its clutches on our lives if we pretend really hard that there is nothing more of concern.

Some of the numbers do look encouraging. Daily case counts in Utah have dipped under 1,000 and the pressure on hospital intensive care units has eased a bit.

But last week’s confused statement from Gov. Spencer Cox was so full of internal contradictions and frankly unwarranted optimism that it might be better if he just stopped talking about it and left the giving of advice to real public health experts.

Cox said COVID is not over. Which is clearly true. He said that more folks should get fully vaccinated, something that now means a third “booster” shot. Also true.

But he was misleading at best when he said the current dominant variant, omicron, is so weak that its progress is no longer related to vaccination rates. The governor’s own health department says that, even with the relatively smaller impact of omicron, the unvaccinated are still 2.4 times more likely to come down with the virus than vaccinated people are.

In other words, vaccines still matter. More than just about anything else.

The governor’s hope that Utah businesses would stop requiring vaccinations for their employees and customers is the wrong approach for any leader to be taking under the circumstances. He should not just hope that the Legislature does not pass a bill prohibiting those safeguards at the option of private businesses. He should be promising to veto such a measure, on the grounds that it is both anti-public health and anti-private business.

Cox is also wrong if he assumes that omicron is just the latest step in some kind of natural progression from stronger to weaker variants. It might be. But it also might just be a pause in the evolutionary track of the virus, a breather before it takes a much more deadly turn.

As the popular internet meme says, “What doesn’t kill you mutates and tries again.”

Everyone wants this pandemic to go away for good. We want our lives back. Our children in school. Our restaurants and bars open. Our businesses thriving and our freedom to go about our day as we please unimpeded.

The way to get there is increased rates of vaccination, including boosters. It is not circular advice from political leaders and industrial-strength denial spread through the land.

The way is not to follow Cox’s example and give unwarranted lip service to the anti-vaxx movement with absurd comments about how the young and vaccinated “could stand to take this disease a lot less seriously.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson took pleasure Monday in lifting most of England’s COVID limitations and mandates. He reasonably based his decision on his nation’s relatively successful vaccination rates, with 85% of the population over the age of 12 having at least two shots and some 66% having their third jab. A fourth shot will soon be made available to those age 75 and over and those above the age of 12 with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable.

Even then, Johnson’s political rivals called his decision rash and public health officials cautioned that there is still a danger of future waves.

Utah’s leaders don’t even have Johnson’s reason for optimism. Here the rate of eligible people with two coronavirus vaccinations is only 63%, with a mere 27% boosted.

That’s not going to cut it.

It is also troubling that Utah is moving away from public testing sites, as the obvious result will be fewer reported cases when there are fewer tests. The state will still report hospitalizations and deaths, just not as often, which is less helpful as both of those numbers are trailing trends that spike days or weeks after any rise in infections.

Even a lower rate of positive tests and fewer daily deaths, compared to the height of the delta wave just a few months ago, should not be considered an acceptable new normal. The pandemic continues to threaten everyone, not just the medically vulnerable. It still has the potential to close businesses, close schools and slam hospitals.

Those who would lead us out of this swamp must say flat out that COVID is still a serious concern for everyone and that those who minimize it, who push back against the need for higher vaccination rates, are a danger to us all.