SALT LAKE CITY — Celebrity talk show host Jimmy Kimmel noticed.

And he was not alone.

Hundreds of thousands of others watched and shared a KTVX-ABC4 news report out of St. George that went viral last week. Kimmel tweeted and linked to the video of an anti-mask protest happening in front of an elementary school in the southern Utah city.

“Introducing ... the world’s dumbest person,” the tweet said, referencing a woman’s offensive comparison of wearing a mask to prevent further spread of COVID-19 to George Floyd’s death in Minnesota after he pleaded with police officers: “I can’t breathe.”

Forget about public shaming for a minute — I’m not in favor of that practice. Yet this news report is one of four instances in the past six months where Utah has shouldered into the national spotlight for actions by its citizens, relating to COVID-19 and the worldwide pandemic. They are evidence that can answer, at least in part, this week’s most pressing question: Why are the number of cases of COVID-19 surging in Utah?

Consider this startling week, in reverse order:

  • Saturday, 1,077 newly reported cases and three deaths. Utah Gov. Gary Herbert renewed the State of Emergency declaration for the state. Corner Canyon High School teacher Charri Jensen tested positive for COVID-19 Sept. 10 and was hospitalized this past week. Many people are using this Sunday, her birthday, to fast and pray for her quick recovery. The school has gone to virtual-only instruction. Other schools across the state are now instituting hybrid virtual and on-campus programs as cases tied to school attendance rise.
  • Friday, 1,117 new and unique cases were reported, a single day record for the state. Herbert called the number “alarming.”
  • Thursday, 911 new cases of COVID-19 were reported, what was then a single day record. Herbert said “this is a wake-up call for all of us.”
  • Wednesday, 747 new cases and another death were reported. That was the previous record. Dr. Angela Dunn, epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said: “By wearing masks, physically distancing and staying home if we are sick, we can prevent unnecessary death and illness.”

Those numbers stand in glaring contrast to the viral video claiming a right not to wear a mask to school.

North of St. George in Utah County, in the middle of summer, another image made national news. On July 15 Utah County Commissioner Tanner Ainge called an abrupt end to a meeting about masks in schools before it got underway, because the meeting room was filled shoulder-to-shoulder with people not wearing masks.

Utah County residents pack into the Utah County Commision chambers in Provo on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 in Provo, to voice their opinions on state mandate that students in grades K-12 wear masks in schools. The commission was scheduled to vote on a letter asking Ralph Clegg, executive director of the Utah County Health Department, to give Utah County “compassionate exemptions” to Gov. Gary Herbert’s mandate. However, the meeting was cut short after Tanner Ainge, the commission’s chairman, made a motion to continue the meeting at a later date, saying it violated several public health directives issued by the state and county. The motion to reschedule passed 2-1, bringing boos from protesters. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

CNN, NBC and a host of national and local news outlets featured the meeting as a sign of discord in the state, and the lack of a singular national message about masks (following confusing directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as the debate raged throughout the past six months.

A third instance of national attention, this one including 17 other states across the U.S., came when the Center for Public Integrity released a copy of a July 14 document that placed Utah in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning it had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population the previous week. It was evidence of a surge, following what had been a better-than-average response by the citizenry who followed the direction to stay home and wear masks by its medical and elected leaders.

The fourth, and perhaps most significant issue, was the state’s laudatory attempt to use public-private partnerships to battle COVID-19. Unfortunately it resulted in the early purchase of anti-malarial drugs (later refunded), questions about the TestUtah initiative, and expensive missteps surrounding the Healthy Together app.

The New York Times weighed in with “Lessons from a Virus Tracing Dud.” The New Yorker also did an expansive piece, Wired magazine, the Wall Street Journal and many others had their say. Last week Utah state auditors released their own report on the missteps.

There was some good news: “Legislative auditors found that of the more than $97.3 million that state agencies doled out in emergency spending to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic from March to July, many contracts were executed without significant concerns.” And then there was the national-news-making bad news: poor communication and collaboration led to a $4 million partnership with Twenty Labs on the Healthy Together App, and a questionable $9.6 million partnership with Nomi Utah on the TestUtah initiative.

Is there a lesson?

Utah is an amazing place. The landscape is beautiful, but it stands apart because of its people. They work hard. They serve. They try to do the right thing.

Another report came out this past week about the tourism industry and the attraction of Utah. As Deseret News reporter Art Raymond wrote: “Before the curtain of pandemic-related restrictions dropped decisively in mid-March, Utah tourism and travel was racking up another set of benchmarks including over $10 billion in visitor spending, some $1.3 billion in related tax revenues, over 800,000 room nights booked just in Salt Lake City and an annual growth track north of 5%.

Utah will return to that. It will do so much quicker if its residents abide by a few very simple rules: maintain social distance and wear a mask. It’s direction from the governor. It’s direction from the state’s epidemiologist. It’s the direction from the doctors and administrators working in our hospitals. And it’s the direction of national health experts focused on the science of transmission.

We’re all in this together. Here’s another way to look at the science and the humanity, from a man who knows a bit about scientific discovery:

“Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.” — Albert Einstein.