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Utah’s unique advantages against COVID-19

Gov. Gary Herbert, right, discusses the spread of COVID-19 during a press conference in the Emergency Operations Center at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

While the numbers could change, Utah currently has one of the lowest coronavirus death rates in the nation.

Why?

It’s worth seeking to answer this question. But first a word of caution: Much of the data regarding COVID-19 is fluid and preliminary. Making firm predictions or assessments is imprudent as the situation shifts and evolves daily.

The only static advice is to follow the guidance of trained experts and public health officials who urge best practices to slow the spread of the virus — social distancing, hand-washing and wearing protective masks where relevant.

The governor has directed all Utahns to “Stay safe, stay home.”

Earlier this month, I pointed to concerning cellphone data suggesting that Utahns were, on average, traveling at higher rates than citizens in other states. I reasoned that this could cause the coronavirus in the state to spread more than it might otherwise.

And, in fact, Utah does appear to have a relatively high number of confirmed cases per capita. Some 27 other states appear to be besting Utah in terms of per capita cases.

And yet, when it comes to deaths per capita from coronavirus, Utah is ahead of just about every state except Wyoming and West Virginia.

So what’s going on here? Shouldn’t higher per capita cases equate to higher per capita deaths?

Utah’s elevated level of testing might help explain the seeming incongruity in the data. The thinking goes that other states are simply under testing and, by extension, putting out artificially low counts of total COVID-19 cases.

Right now, Utah ranks about seventh in the nation for tests per capita. That’s not bad. We might reason, then, that if other states had a full grasp of their total cases perhaps their death-to-case ratio might drop and start to look a bit more like Utah’s. And, of course, Utah’s high levels of testing might also help explain Utah’s seemingly low death rate in another way: Testing can get people proper treatment sooner and prevent severe morbidity or death.

But, testing alone still doesn’t explain why Utah has a markedly lower death rate than say, Vermont, Rhode Island or New Mexico, all of which actually rank higher than Utah in terms of per capita testing.

Here, it would seem, Utah’s distinct demographics may play a role.

Utah is young. Really young. As in, Utah is the youngest state in the nation. Given that older individuals are at a greater risk for death or severe symptoms from COVID-19, Utah’s relative youth is an advantage. Even as cases rise, fewer patients may require hospitalization.

Utah’s youth is largely the result of its family-oriented culture. Although the state’s birthrate has slowed in recent years, it still remains among the highest in the nation.

Another advantage: Utahns smoke less and drink less. In fact, Utah has the lowest percentage of smokers and the lowest rate of alcohol consumption in the nation. When it comes to fighting COVID-19, this may also prove a significant advantage.

According to research, “excessive alcohol consumption” may be linked to “adverse immune-related health effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia.” And, as reported in The New York Times, smoking “tobacco and marijuana products damage lungs, where the (COVID-19) virus does its harm.”

This is why “health officials are urging people to quit” during the pandemic.

Utah, of course, is known for its high percentage of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who adhere to a health code that jettisons smoking and drinking.

Assuming that COVID-19 case numbers are accurate, or at least close to accurate in other states, Utah’s per capita cases of COVID-19 are really not too impressive. We’re spreading the virus.

But, the state’s norms regarding family life (i.e., its young population) and health (i.e., its very low levels of smoking and drinking) might help explain how Utah continues to have one of the lowest coronavirus-related death rates in the country.

In the months ahead, Utah’s distinct demographic advantages may also prove beneficial economically. A 2016 study, for example, found that a 10% increase in a state’s population over 60 years old corresponded with a decrease in overall GDP. And, as highlighted by Vox, a report from the International Monetary Fund found that an aging workforce can suffer from a reduction in productivity. Utah’s youth, compared to other states, may aid in jump-starting its post-COVID-19 economic recovery.

Also, Utah’s sizable governmental and faith-based rainy day funds will also aid in this regard. Last week, an analysis from the Pew Charitable Trust praised states such as Minnesota and Utah for building rainy day funds and for conducting budgetary “stress tests” which help to tease out vulnerabilities and aid in preparing for future economic downturns.

In Utah, saving for times of distress — a well-known principle taught within the Latter-day Saint faith tradition — contributes to a culture of prudent fiscal stewardship. The Church of Jesus Christ itself has made headlines for its significant “rainy day” investments that are designed to support the institution, its humanitarian efforts and its millions of members during times of economic downturn, such as these.

While statistical analyses are informative, behind each number in this crisis are people suffering in the hospital or families mourning the death of a loved one. The numbers are anxious workers and community members receiving pink slips or furlough notices.

These are all reasons Utahns must not let up in their efforts to defeat COVID-19, even as we seek to understand and appreciate how this devastating plague affects the state. Far from causing us to relax, the state’s unique demographic advantages against COVID-19 should inspire us to more fully grasp the positive impact that seemingly small, individual actions can have in the aggregate.

It should, in other words, nudge us to social distance and wash hands with more purpose, to be more careful and conscientious as we venture beyond our homes, and to act for the betterment of all and the wellbeing of the most vulnerable among us.

Hal Boyd is an associate professor of family law and policy at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution. His views are his own.