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Why is Utah fighting COVID-19 better than most? For one thing, state residents know how to save money

The worldometer.info website has consistently ranked the state third or fourth in fewest deaths per 1 million population.

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Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, listens to questions asked remotely during the daily COVID-19 media briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 11, 2020.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — By now, it’s becoming clear that Utah is doing better than just about any other state when it comes to controlling the COVID-19 outbreak.

The first question is why, but the second, perhaps more relevant, question is: Does this mean Utah will be better able to rebound economically when all of this is over? 

How well is the state doing? The worldometer.info website, which tracks facts associated with the pandemic daily, has consistently ranked the state third or fourth in fewest deaths per 1 million population. On Tuesday, Utah was fourth, with 21. But the four states ahead of it (two are tied for first), are mostly rural, with the exception of Hawaii, and its population is far less than Utah’s.

A little-known secret is that Utah is one of the most urban states in the nation, ranked ninth, according to the 2010 census. Utah is spacious and sparsely populated, but most of its 3.2 million people live along the urban Wasatch Front. Urban areas may not necessarily be the most vulnerable to this virus — the Navajo Nation’s high case rate testifies to that — but they do provide more opportunities for people to interact and spread disease.

On Monday, the state reported that the estimated number of people who have recovered from COVID-19 in Utah (3,181) has surpassed the number of active cases (3,114) for the first time.

This is all good news, even though the virus is still out there and health officials say this is no time to stop social distancing or wearing face masks.

But why is Utah doing so well?

That question seems to have three possible answers. The first is that Utah has the youngest population in the nation. Its share of people 65 and older ranks 51st (including the District of Columbia). The second is that Utah is best in the nation when it comes to people saving money for unexpected expenses.

The third has to do with the state’s spirit of volunteerism, especially when it comes to things like making masks, and a general compliance with official directives (something difficult to gauge). 

The first two factors were highlighted in a series of metrics published this week by the personal finance website Wallethub.com. The website ranked Utah as the state with the least vulnerable population to coronavirus in the nation.

The youth factor is a no-brainer. It correlates with better health across the board. Utah ranks low for a host of chronic diseases, and it is last in the share of population older than 65 and second to last for nursing home occupancy.

Significantly, a little more than 90% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths have been in the over-65 category, which explains why the overall number is low. Of course, that may change as the virus changes.

The money factor, however, may be most interesting. Not only do Utahns save the most for emergencies, they rank 47th when it comes to being delinquent on their debts. The state also ranks second in the nation in terms of median household income, at $65,584. 

What does all this have to do with fighting a virus? 

“It’s true that the population living in poverty is among the most vulnerable to the virus,” Wallethub analyst Jill Gonzalez told me by email. People without financial means tend to have little “access to medical service or even basic hygienic facilities.”

If you have no savings or are heavily in debt, you may have a hard time adjusting to layoffs, furloughs or other financial pressures brought on by the virus.

Utah is not without poverty, of course, but these figures are generally good news for Utah. That is all relative, however. 

The Utah State Tax Commission released data this week on tax collections so far this year. It isn’t a pretty picture. Sales tax collections are down only 0.4% over last year, but the retail clothing and accessories sector was down a whopping 44.1%, and arts, entertainment and recreation were off 51.3%. Motor fuel tax collections were down 13%.

Eventually, these will have to translate into higher taxes or serious cuts at all government levels. Utah’s unemployment rate has also skyrocketed in recent weeks.

Meanwhile, none of this means the coronavirus is dead. It’s still out there, hurting the economy, even if deaths in Utah are low.

But maybe, just maybe, Utah’s high savings rate and low death rate might mean a faster return to normal some day. And maybe Utah’s relative wealth will allow it to help its least fortunate.