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People put flowers onto Ray Tuineau’s coffin during a burial service at Valley View Memorial Park in West Valley City on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020. Tuineau was one of the more than 380 Utahns who died because of COVID-19.

Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The families of Utah’s COVID-19 victims deserve every ounce of caution we can give them

SHARE The families of Utah’s COVID-19 victims deserve every ounce of caution we can give them
SHARE The families of Utah’s COVID-19 victims deserve every ounce of caution we can give them

There’s no mistaking the cause of Utah’s record-setting 30 COVID-19 deaths on Thursday: It’s a direct result of November’s surge in transmissions, says Dr. Angela Dunn.

And that was with Gov. Gary Herbert’s state of emergency issued two weeks before Thanksgiving, along with directives calling for a statewide mask mandate and various restrictions on gathering. They were the most decisive actions to date. 

That’s not to say his actions were futile; on the contrary, we hesitate to think of what December might look like if those directives were not in place.

But the lesson is clear: The virus is real. It is infecting, debilitating and killing Utahns, and it won’t stop its course without constant vigilance from the good people of this state. 

Thursday’s death count is sobering, as are the more than 1,000 other Utah lives lost to the pandemic. Said Dr. Dunn, “It’s a tragic reminder that while there is a lot of hope on the horizon with the vaccine, we still have a long ways to go and we still need to protect those who are most vulnerable.”

The arrival of the vaccine — a miracle as it is — is not what will end this pandemic; vaccinations are. Life cannot return to some state of normalcy without significant portions of the populace being vaccinated. Dr. Dunn’s assessment is accurate, but 10 months into the pandemic, we now have an idea of how to walk that path.

Let’s start with schools. While children and teenagers are not a high-risk group with COVID-19, interruptions to their education risk future opportunities. The pandemic has taken its toll on students in Utah — 4,000 middle schoolers and high schoolers in Salt Lake City School District had failing grades during the first fall 2020 quarter, up from 2,500 last year. Some officials warn of students “disappearing.”

While online school and socially distanced, masked classrooms are ideal, some experts warn that the issue is neither here nor there. Instead, the biggest factor leading to student struggles during COVID-19 is deemed “whiplash” — the constant cycle of in-person learning, transitioning online due to outbreaks, coming back in person, and being forced back online when teachers or students get sick.

State leaders are finding solutions, which we appreciate. The recent decision to include teachers in a priority group for COVID-19 vaccination is an important step in the right direction. Policy adjustments to quarantine and shutdown procedures, announced this week, will likewise promote consistency. They could help lessen interruptions on learning while promoting safety.

Nonetheless, all the planning in the world cannot replace caution in the present. Holiday gatherings and COVID-19 spikes could undermine even the best of plans.

A Christmas without loved ones near feels as hollow as an empty present, but that shouldn’t mean reckless gathering supersedes public health guidelines. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds the public that the safest holiday celebration is with those who live in your household. Any number of guests increases the risk of spreading the virus. 

But we’re realists. We know many Utahns have already solidified their plans, and those plans involve college students returning home for Christmas break and children flying in from across the country. 

Modifications must be made. Every ounce of caution now could prevent suffering later — and for the 30 Utah families who lost loved ones on Thursday, more than an ounce is warranted.