Utah may be landlocked, but we are working hard to prevent a tsunami from rising within our borders. The coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, has infected more than 127,000 people in 100 countries and threatens to form a high, steep wave of diagnosed cases. That makes COVID-19 different than the typical seasonal flu, which instead rises slowly over several months before dissipating when warmer weather arrives. 

The seasonal flu is kept in check with vaccines, antiviral drugs and our immunity from prior flu seasons. Many of our immune systems have seen seasonal flu before and can fight it off. This year, we are challenged by a brand-new coronavirus, one for which there is currently no vaccine or antiviral treatments. In countries such as China and Italy, where the virus has been transmitted widely, the spike in reported cases within a short time period has overwhelmed systems in those countries. 

COVID-19 has come to Utah. If the new pathogen is not kept in check, it has the potential to overwhelm our health care systems, as well.  As leaders of our state and leaders of our health systems, we are obligated to keep our health care workforce healthy so that they can keep Utah citizens healthy. We are using protective measures to prevent virus transmission. But when it comes to stopping or slowing the spread of coronavirus, the public is our first line of defense. We all must work together. 

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The Utah Department of Health recommends getting vaccinated for influenza and taking everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs, including regular hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or an elbow, and staying home when you’re sick. All nonessential travel to areas affected by COVID-19 is highly discouraged and now restricted by many organizations. A public health term, “social distancing,” describes the best defense against the coronavirus and includes not gathering in large crowds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that COVID-19 can be spread “between people who are in close contact with one another, even within six feet.” 

This is a serious situation, and we are working around the clock to protect and care for our communities. Our health systems are prepared with procedures in place to help slow the virus spread as patients are tested and treated. Virtual visits allow patients to stay home for consultations with providers. We’ve set up new hotlines with additional personnel taking calls for immediate service. 

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We have new pathways for patients and families as they come into our facilities. Some have put up tents to separate those with respiratory illness from other patients, and there is special signage stationed at entrances. Additional training and education will be provided for our entire workforces to be certain everyone is aware of the latest information to prevent virus transmission. We are also making sure our health care teams have the supplies they need to keep patients safe and serve the community should an outbreak occur.

Just as we’ve empowered our health care providers and staff members to hold off a tsunami of coronavirus cases, we want to empower community members throughout Utah to take protective measures for themselves, especially social distancing, and to stay updated on information that changes daily. We need the public to be aware of vulnerable members in our communities and to help them protect themselves. People age 60 and older, especially those with chronic health conditions, are the most vulnerable if infected with this new virus.     

The COVID-19 pandemic is a most challenging health crisis. We hope to keep the number of those infected to a minimum. We need everyone in our great state to remember the vital role they have as members of our first line of defense.

Gary Herbert is Utah’s governor. Spencer Cox is Utah’s lieutenant governor. Brian Dunn is the Steward Health Care Utah regional president. Marc Harrison is the president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare. Gregory R. Angle is the president of MountainStar Healthcare. Michael Good is the CEO of University of Utah Health.

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