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Utah needs a clearer COVID-19 endgame

All pandemic restrictions should be lifted when Utah meets a certain benchmark, like 75% of the populace vaccinated

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Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, left, Gov. Spencer Cox, center, and and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn take turns answering questions about the ongoing pandemic during a news conference at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 11, 2021. The Utah Legislature passed House Bill 294, which would end Utah’s mask mandate and other restrictions when the state meets certain criteria.

Francisco Kjolseth

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, all that’s clear is the virus is here to stay. Like most coronaviruses, it will mutate, simmer and seasonally boil over. If we can’t eliminate it, we must live with it.

Yet, despite precipitously declining numbers of cases and deaths, government messaging continues to push social and economic restrictions to keep COVID-19 at bay. We do not ridicule vigilance, nor diminish the value of human life, which government constraints aim to preserve. We do, however, call on Utah’s elected officials to recognize the changing pandemic playing field and set a corresponding COVID-19 finish line that, when reached, triggers resumption of pre-pandemic life. 

House Bill 294, the “COVID-19 endgame,” is a step in the right direction but hardly an “endgame.” The bill conflates ditching masks with returning to normalcy. But masks are only a fraction of the crushing weight humanity has borne over the past year. Since HB294 qualifies its repeal of mask mandates and punts easing other COVID-19 restrictions into an opaque future, the bill seems, at best, like a hollow victory. At worst, it resembles a cynical political stunt to make us think we got the XBox we wanted for Christmas when it’s really an Atari.

What Utah really needs as we limp into a second year of pandemic is a clear COVID-19 endgame achievable through individual action. No jargon-filled formulas, no sliding scales, no equivocation over endless uncertainties. The goal could be 2.5 million vaccinated Utahns, or approximately 75% of Utah’s population — a realistic benchmark on the road to herd immunity. When achieved, all government-mandated restrictions would be lifted. This unambiguous goal and clear-cut reward contrasts sharply with HB294’s hazy objectives contingent on confusing criteria. Clarity will encourage skeptical Utahns to vaccinate.

A chief counter to calls to reopen is that saving lives requires caution. But data from the past two months hints that caution, though still an important policy ingredient, should no longer be the only one. Case numbers continue to tumble from January highs, both in states like Texas and Florida, which did not impose statewide mask and distancing mandates, and in states like California that did. This uniform decline countrywide strongly suggests that factors apart from government restrictions are contributing. 

Clarity will encourage skeptical Utahns to vaccinate.

Another concern is uncertainty surrounding virus mutations. Experts are unsure how well vaccines protect against these variants. Consequently, they say, we should exercise caution, maintaining vigilant mask and social distancing protocols, until we know we’re safe. This reasoning flies in the face of all science knows about viruses. They mutate all the time. We cannot postpone normal life until we either eradicate COVID-19 or completely protect the public from its current and future variants. Common-sense virology tells us that task is impossible.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put it best when defending the United Kingdom’s roadmap to lift its lockdown this summer. He said reopening would result in “more cases, more hospitalizations and, sadly, more deaths.” But, Johnson rightly noted, there is “no credible” way to eliminate the virus, and restrictions that “debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing and the life chances of our children” cannot persist “indefinitely.”

Deaths from this virus are regrettable but inevitable. We call on Utah policymakers to accept this reality, grapple with the inertia of fear-based caution, and dismiss the fiction that we can save everyone. We understand life is precious — the lives of those struggling mentally and emotionally through a year of hobbling restrictions as well as the lives of those at-risk for severe COVID-19 complications. A goal of 2.5 million vaccinated Utahns would spur vaccinations aimed to protect the vulnerable among us while identifying an endgame for those aching for the pandemic to end.

At some point we must take an uncertain leap into a future where we coexist with COVID-19. We will depend for our health, as we long have, on our immune systems, vaccines, and our collective decision-making capacity. With new cases and deaths diminishing and vaccination campaigns ramping up, now is a good time to make the leap.

Joseph Leavitt is an adjunct professor at Utah Valley University. His opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer. Spencer Humiston is an entrepreneur and reformed lawyer based in Orem.