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Intermountain Healthcare president: Utah should be proud of COVID-19 response

We’re not declaring victory in the pandemic. But our success is encouraging.

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Tess Sullivan receives a COVID-19 test in Utah.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

When Clayton Christensen was in third grade, he fell down on a school playground and ripped his Levi’s. “This was serious,” he said, “because I had the standard family ration of two pairs of school trousers.” His family didn’t have extra money for a new pair of pants, so instead, his mom taught him to use their sewing machine. “I sat there clueless at first, but eventually figured it out,” he said.

Clayton, who was my friend and a member of Intermountain Healthcare’s Board of Trustees — in addition to being a widely admired professor in the Harvard Business School — told the story in his great book, “How Will You Measure Your Life?” 

“I have no memory now of what the repair to the knee of those Levi’s looked like, but I’m sure it wasn’t pretty,” he said. “When I looked at it, however, it didn’t occur to me that I might not have done a perfect mending job. I only felt pride that I had done it.”

The story has some parallels to how Utah is responding to COVID-19. It’s difficult. We’ve had to learn new skills. Our lives are more ragged than they used to be. But we’ve forged a workable solution — and I think everyone in Utah should feel the same kind of pride in our response that Clayton felt about his mending.

Here are some data that show how we’re doing not only healthwise, but economically and personally. I share them with a caveat: Statistics paint an incomplete picture, especially when they involve people’s lives. Speaking as a physician and a member of the community, there is no acceptable rate of infection or death or economic trauma. Still, these statistics show our progress:

  • Utah’s case fatality rate — or the number of people infected with COVID who die from the virus — is 0.78%. The national rate is 3.1%.
  • state-by-state comparison of mortality per 100,000 people shows Utah has the 10th lowest rate in the U.S., which means more patients survive the virus here than in 40 other states. Our rate of 12 compares to a rate of 52 deaths per 100,000 people nationwide. The mortality rates of our neighboring states, for the sake of comparison: 5 in Wyoming, 16 in Idaho, 33 in Colorado, 36 in Nevada and 62 in Arizona.
  • Utah’s unemployment rate is 4.5% compared to a national average of 10.2%. We have the lowest unemployment rate in the U.S.

  • Numerous indications show the strength of our economy. Utah has an AAA bond rating — the highest rating a state can receive — which positions us well to deal with the pandemic’s economic challenges. One new study says Utah has had the best economic outlook of all 50 states for 13 years in a row. Another says we’re the best state in the nation to start a business.
  • The percent of Utahns who self-report that they always wear a mask when they’re out in public jumped from 41% in June to 70% in August. The national rate is about 55%.

One more data point: More Utahns are likely to participate in community service — 43% of our people — than residents in any other state, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. The next closest state, Minnesota, has a volunteer rate of 35%; the national average is 24.9%.

We’re not declaring victory in the pandemic. We have a long road ahead of us, and we need to stick with all of the preventive behaviors that have helped us cope so far. Our progress could relapse very quickly if we stop masking, social distancing, washing our hands and avoiding social gatherings where these preventive steps are ignored. Following proven mask protocols is especially important.

But our successes are encouraging. If I was your doctor and I was checking your symptoms, I’d tell you: You’re in good shape — and if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to get better. Or, as Clayton Christensen might say: The patches in our collective Levi’s are working.

Marc Harrison, M.D., is president and CEO of Intermountain Healthcare.