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Inside the newsroom: In praise of Dr. Angela Dunn and accepting a dose of hard medicine

Saturday morning meeting with White House leaders underscored the key role Utah plays in the fight against the virus

SHARE Inside the newsroom: In praise of Dr. Angela Dunn and accepting a dose of hard medicine

Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, talks about a COVID-19 outbreak in the Utah State Prison during a press conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Dr. Angela Dunn was nearly two hours late for our planned 10 a.m. Saturday phone call, texting to let me know she would be delayed.

While most Utahns were getting a start on weekend chores or putting the final touches on children’s Halloween costumes, Dunn, the state epidemiologist, was with the governor and state officials in an in-person briefing from Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, and Dr. Robert Redfield, the current director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Friday, Birx warned the nation’s governors in a conference call about the broad surge of the pandemic across the country. Saturday she was in Salt Lake City, part of “a 42 state tour briefing on the severity of the outbreak,” Dunn said. “They showed us where the spread has happened and the lessons learned. They were being very frank with us,” she told me following the briefing.

The lesson? Cold-weather states equal coronavirus hot spot. Get ready.

In the conference call Friday, Birx said, “This is a broad surge across every state where it is cooling,” according to audio of the call obtained by CBS News. “... We’re learning from the far north about how dramatic that spread can be, and we do not see yet improvements in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota or Wisconsin.” 

Dunn said those in Saturday morning’s meeting in Utah reiterated the key role Utah plays in the fight against the virus. “(Birx) spoke of Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho, and we provide a lot of tertiary care there,” Dunn said. The message for Utahns: “These states are depending on you.”

Unfortunately, Utah is in the midst of its own surge, with a seven-day average record positive rate of 18.2%.

It makes it all the more outrageous to consider the protesters who twice came to Dunn’s home last week in a misguided attempt to protest state officials requiring masks for any gathering in counties with high transmission rates. Inside the newsroom the message to the public is, fight the virus, not each other.

Dunn said she was surprised to be the target of protesters at such a key time for the state.

“I have colleagues across the nation who have left their jobs because they are not supported by their community,” she said Saturday. “So I’ve been so thankful to live in Utah. We are in a state where we can have differences of opinion but still work together, to band together. ... So this was a moment that felt very unnatural,” she said.

The Deseret News editorial board supports the right to protest, but spared few words in condemning the action of the protesters targeting an individual who has worked tirelessly since February to protect health care workers and the state. The editorial board wrote this week:

“The people who spread Dr. Angela Dunn’s home address on social media, and the protesters who showed up at her house this week to harass and intimidate her, displayed the lowest of contemptible human behavior under the guise of activism. Dunn is Utah’s state epidemiologist. She has worked tirelessly during the pandemic to protect the people of Utah and the many health care workers who, at present, are exhausted and struggling to do their jobs as hospitals fill to capacity.”

It does take a toll, Dunn said, but the goodness of Utah also came through.

“I was shocked by how many people sent me notes of support from all corners of my life. They sent flowers to my office. There are more people out there who are good,” she said. “This is just a vocal minority and they’re misguided by national rhetoric.”

Her neighbors also turned out to support her, said Dunn, who has lived here with her family for six years.

“I live in the best neighborhood. We found out about the protest Wednesday night. (The neighbors) were great. People asked me, we will come and do a counterprotest, and I said no,” not wanting to give oxygen to anything negative. Fighting the coronavirus is a group effort and appears more important now than ever.

Here’s the hard medicine Dunn is dispensing: “We are in a point of our outbreak right now that we should really commit to our close contacts to only being people we are living with.”

She said when health officials talk to people who contract COVID-19 about who they’ve been in contact with, it can stretch to 30 or 40 people and there is no way to get on top of the virus with that kind of exposure. Utahns limited their exposure in the spring. They need to do it again, as does every cold-weather state that has become (or will become) a place where the coronavirus is flourishing.

If we commit to eliminating extended family dinners or other gatherings for a period of weeks, we can bring the numbers down in hopes having Thanksgiving and, thinking bigger, a ski season.

Wear a mask and don’t socially gather. It’s that simple. That will save pain, suffering and lives.

What does that mean for gatherings like church services? I asked Dunn directly.

She said church services are OK with parishioners wearing masks and maintaining social distance. It’s controlled. But the extended family and friends gatherings in tight quarters will spread the disease. With cold weather — and this is the lesson from the Northern states — indoor gatherings are causing problems.

Dunn is exhausted, as are so many health care workers. “It’s a roller coaster of emotion and energy,” she said. “A lot of exhaustion is feeling like you’re banging yourself against a wall and feeling like I personally have failed my health care colleagues. My goal and my role is to protect our health care workers,” she said.

That brings us back to working toward the collective good.

Late one night last week I came across a 45-minute illustrated lecture and video presentation titled, “D-Day to Germany,” part of the national archive and record of World War II.

A war correspondent provided the commentary while images of citizens in London, anticipating D-Day, gave way to scenes of the invasion and ultimately, scenes of Paris on Victory Day. On one day the images were of soldiers at Mont Saint-Michel. The correspondent said it was a highlight as they came upon that iconic place, with its monastery, surrounded by water.

There, they met Madame Poulard, who ran the Hotel Poulard. She was famous for her omelettes and the correspondents remembered the kindness of her feeding them, one small measure of support in a most difficult conflict. They gathered here close to the front before heading out to again cover the war. Some lost their lives.

With Europe seeing a surge in the virus, America wrestling with it, and Utah fully engaged in the conflict, we can invoke the lessons of wartime. Madame Poulard fed everyone she could to help with the war effort. Perhaps each of us can give up a meal — give up a gathering — to fight a different enemy.