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Opinion: COVID-19 endgame? It’s not turning out the way Utah lawmakers planned

When this pandemic ends, and it will end, don’t expect any politicians to hold a press conference to announce it. Don’t expect a ‘mission accomplished’ banner

Microbioligist Ann Gariety sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville.
Microbioligist Ann Gariety sequences COVID-19 samples for variants at the Utah Public Health Laboratory in Taylorsville on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Does anyone still think the Utah Legislature did a good thing last year by passing a COVID-19 “endgame bill” that effectively ended the state’s mask mandate on April 10, 2021?

In September, a poll by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found that 53% of Utahns felt either a local or state health department should be the one to decide whether to impose such a mandate. Only 8% said they would leave it to the Legislature.

The “endgame bill,” which became law, argues the people are right.

When this pandemic ends, and it will end, don’t expect any politicians to hold a press conference to announce it. Don’t expect a “mission accomplished” banner. Don’t expect accolades to any office holder for making the right policy choice or finding the right metrics that put us on the right path.

As The Associated Press reported this week, experts believe the time will come when the World Health Organization decides enough countries have reduced their rates of infection, hospitalization and death sufficiently to declare that COVID-19 has reached an “endemic” state, meaning it has settled to a reasonable, constant level.

“Certainly, COVID will be with us forever,” Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health, told the AP. But then, the flu is with us forever, as well. We will learn to accept a certain level of infection each year, as we do with other illnesses.

Boosters will be available to combat new variants. Some people will get mild cases. Others will suffer more severely. Life will settle down to a new and steady rhythm.

But we’re certainly not there yet, and we weren’t anywhere near it last April 10.

Speaking of metrics, let me refresh your memory. The “endgame bill” declared that any “public health emergency declared by the Department of Health or a local health department” would end when a set of COVID-19 thresholds were met. These were: A statewide 14-day case rate of less than 191 per 100,000; an occupancy rate of intensive care unit beds of less than 15% for COVID-19 patients; and at least 1.63 million vaccine doses being available, not administered.

The state met those thresholds, briefly, so the health emergency and mask mandate ended.

However, we have not met those thresholds much since then. As of Thursday, the 14-day case rate was 1,501.2 per 100,000, or nearly eight times as high as the “endgame bill” specified. Intensive care unit beds were 94.6% occupied.

The deputy director of the Utah Department of Health described the state’s health care system as “dire” in a news conference this week.

The Deseret News reported she said testing facilities and hospitals are “bursting at the seams” and short-staffed because of infections among their own people. The state has an acute shortage of monoclonal antibody treatments for patients. Hospitals are rationing care. The University of Utah Hospital has put some surgeries on hold and, at times, has turned some ambulances away, KSL reported Friday.

Amid all this, there is good news. The omicron variant does not result in as many severe cases as previous variants. The Wall Street Journal said New York’s largest state hospital figures about 10% of patients who come in with the variant end up in the ICU, compared with 25% to 35% with previous variants.

Also, you don’t hear politicians talking about shutting down economies much anymore, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reduced the recommended quarantine period to five days.

As always, however, preventative measures are needed to keep the stronger people from infecting the weak or immunocompromised. We have plenty of vaccines, boosters and masks available.

These aren’t foolproof, of course. Some vaccinated people get sick, and cloth masks only reduce the rate of spread. They work best when combined with frequent hand washing and physical distancing, as the Mayo Clinic has reported. But they are the best weapons we have, and they can hasten the real endgame.

Incidentally, Summit and Salt Lake counties just imposed mask orders for all indoor spaces. State law allows counties to do so. More of them should.

As for the “endgame bill,” it was good at setting metrics for determining when health orders and mask mandates should expire, but it said nothing about reimposing these when the metrics rose again.

Lawmakers are set to begin their annual session later this month. No word yet on whether they plan to revisit a game that may only have been in the first quarter when they declared it over.