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Why is Utah suddenly a pandemic hot spot?

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John Whitehead gets his finger pricked for COVID-19 antibody testing, conducted by RapidScreen Solutions LLC, at Galena Hills Park in Draper on Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Jon Huntsman Jr.’s positive test for COVID-19 this week ought to have brought the message home to the people of Utah: The pandemic is not over.

A lot of you have been acting as if it is, or as if you’re just plain tired of dealing with it.

A month ago, I wrote a column speculating about why Utah was doing better than just about any other state when it came to managing the novel coronavirus outbreak. Those were the good old days. 

Now it’s time for a different take. We’re not doing so well any more.

A month ago, Utah had a death rate from the virus of 21 per 1 million population. Today, the rate is 40 per 1 million, according to the worldometers.info website. While that’s still among the lowest overall rates in the nation, the trend is unmistakable. Utah has just caught up with Oregon, and West Virginia and Idaho aren’t too far on the horizon. Officials say nearly one-third of all Utah’s COVID-19 cases since March were diagnosed in the last two weeks.

The financial planning website Wallethub.com came out with a trending report on the pandemic Wednesday. It showed Utah was worst in the nation in a metric that tested positive results last week against those of previous weeks. It was fourth worst in terms of positive tests last week alone.

And yet a quick trip to any store will confront you with many people without masks, and few of them consciously staying 6 feet or more from others.


Could it be that the state’s color-coded alert system has actually hurt more than helped?

You know the system. The state assigns a color to our current level of risk, with red being worst and green (like the stoplights) being best. We moved to yellow a few weeks ago. Despite the advice from a legislatively created Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission to move the state to a “smart green” phase, the governor has kept it at yellow.

But even yellow suggests the worst of the danger has passed, even though current numbers look worse than ever. Government thinks yellow means caution. Average people believe it means to speed up so you can make it through the intersection.

Yes, I’m aware that our hospitals remain far below capacity, and that’s a good thing. But that doesn’t erase the alarm of a recent spike in cases, one the state’s epidemiologist said can’t be explained away by an increase in testing.

Is it because people are just plain tired of the pandemic after spending months at home? I get that. I’m growing tired of my basement office, as well. 

But the problem isn’t that businesses have reopened and people are emerging from the dark. It is that the people who shop at those businesses or congregate in parks and on streets aren’t taking basic precautions. 

Sure, the World Health Organization threw a stone of confusion into the pandemic pond when an official suggested asymptomatic people don’t spread the disease, followed quickly by an official backtrack by the organization. It’s been hard to stop the ripple from that stone, but the consensus of medical professionals remains in favor of wearing masks and carefully keeping 6 feet apart.

A poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute, taken at the end of May, found that 42% of Utahns already felt comfortable going out in public without a mask. And yet 57% of those people said they would wear one out of respect to others who feel nervous about non-mask wearers. 

Maybe more of those nervous people ought to speak up.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House health adviser, called this pandemic his “worst nightmare” at a conference on Tuesday. However, he also said he was “heartened” by the speed at which pharmaceutical companies are working on a vaccine. 

The glorious day of an effective vaccine, or perhaps more than one of them, is coming. Until then, people in Utah should not be satisfied with a rising infection rate when a few common-sense measures could turn the tide.