SALT LAKE CITY — Utah officials are not going to wait for an outbreak caused by a coronavirus to wreak havoc on Utah communities before they make decisions about how they’d handle issues like closing schools, shutting down public transit, forbidding large public gatherings or recommending people stay home from church.
Two days after Washington and Florida governors declared states of emergency to deal with COVID-19 outbreaks, Herbert said he and the country’s governors talked with Vice President Mike Pence about the realities of a disease medical professionals are still trying to understand.
“The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and what they’ve indicated to us is the risk (in) America right now is low,” Herbert said at a news conference where he announced Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox will lead the Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force, which will oversee the state’s response. “But that’s the current situation. The concern we have is what the future is going to be with the spread of this virus.”
As of Monday, there were no cases confirmed as contracted in Utah, although 17 people who traveled to affected areas have been tested with 15 of them negative and two results pending. A St. George man who contracted the virus on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which was confirmed while he was in quarantine in California, is being treated at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray in a facility built to deal with emerging infectious diseases like Ebola and COVID-19.
Two more Utahns, both passengers on the same cruise ship, tested positive for COVID-19 while overseas. Both were quarantined in Japanese hospitals and have since been cleared to return to the U.S. One is Jorgensen’s wife, Jerri Jorgensen, who was released from the hospital Sunday and is in a hotel waiting for Princess to arrange her flight home.
The other passengers, Melanie and John Haering, enjoyed an emotional reunion at Salt Lake City International Airport on Monday, when Melanie flew in from California after being quarantined at Travis Air Force Base for two weeks. John Haering was the first Utahn to test positive, and he flew home to Utah after two weeks in a Japanese hospital. He greeted his wife at the airport, both of them wearing face masks.
But a lack of cases in Utah doesn’t mean the state’s leaders don’t feel a sense of urgency to create plans for any possible scenario communities could face.
“It’s not a matter of containment as we see it spreading,” Herbert said. “It’s a matter of what can we do to mitigate the spread and minimize the infection that we have in our communities.”
Herbert said the task force is necessary because the response can’t come from government alone, and Utah cannot rely on the federal government, even though Pence announced $2.5 billion will be available to states for mitigation efforts.
The task force includes Dr. Angela Dunn, Department of Health State Epidemiologist; Commissioner of Public Safety Jess Anderson; Kris Hamlet, director of the Division of Emergency Management; Utah State Superintendent of Schools Sydnee Dickson; President and CEO of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce Derek Miller; Mikelle Moore, senior vice president of community of IHC Health; Brian E. Shiozawa, University of Utah School of Medicine; and community advocate Pamela Atkinson.
Cox said others will be added, and they will work with advocacy or business groups as needs or questions arise.
“What’s important about the state of Utah is that we do have the right people around the table,” Cox said when asked if he felt qualified to lead the task force. “There’s two reasons for (Cox’s appointment). We have this model at the national level with Pence, who is leading that effort, and the power of the executive branch is that we have the power to convene. When we call a meeting people show up, and that’s a really great thing.”
Medical professionals are already strategizing with state leaders and business owners about how to deal with workers who can’t or won’t take days off and stay home when sick.
“While this is a health issue, there are so many other stakeholders that are impacted,” he said. “This is an economic issue. This is an education issue. This is all of those different things.”
The reality is the government can’t deal with all of the issues that will be caused by an outbreak of COVID-19, including the reality that many people cannot afford to take time off work, some don’t have insurance, and others won’t be able to work if schools are closed.
“That’s the purpose of the task force,” Cox said. “These are exactly the questions we will be grappling over time, and again, trying to make as many resources available as possible. We know, however, as we’ve seen pandemics in the past, we are going to have to rely on local communities, by and large, to care of the most vulnerable and those who are struggling.”
He added, “We don’t have a state program or a federal program to watch everybody’s kids when people get sick. We just don’t have that. So we’re going to have to rely on our neighbors and our friends and community members to really bond together in this.”
Dunn said that while COVID-19 is highly communicable, the majority of symptoms are mild, which is good news for the infected but can make it harder to contain as people don’t know they’re sick. The same populations who are vulnerable to influenza could see more severe illness with COVID-19, specifically those with underlying health issues and elderly populations.
“We are really fortunate to have a culture of collaboration in Utah,” she said, noting medical professionals have begun working with business, community, religious and political leaders. “The Utah Department of Health, what we’re doing right now and really focused on is making sure that we identify any person in Utah who could possibly have the COVID-19 virus.”
Because there are a limited number of tests available right now — the State Health Department in conjunction with local providers screen those who suspect they’ve contracted the virus and decide if they should be tested. The state currently has just 400 tests, but there’s hope the federal government can provide more soon. As of this week, Utah’s Department of Health is able to process its own test kits, so wait times for results is reduced from several days to less than 24 hours, she said.
There is no cost to the patient for the testing, but treatment is the responsibility of any patient, Cox said.
The new coronavirus which causes the illness COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China, and has now spread to more than 60 countries. It’s killed more than 3,000 people, including six in Washington.
Herbert and others urged Utahns to take precautions and be prepared. In addition to the oft-repeated advice to wash hands with soap frequently, officials said people need to assess whether they have enough food to be quarantined at home for 14 days. Do they have a financial plan for something like that? What about family members and pets?
For businesses, Cox said, can you operate if employees stay home sick or if they’re quarantined for several weeks? Can you allow employees to work from home? What if schools are closed or public transportation is shut down?
All efforts to test, contain cases, or issue new information as it becomes available about how the disease is spread will come from local health departments, Cox said.
“We will be having formal meetings every week,” Cox said. “Then we will do conference calls with the larger group of stakeholders across the state every week, and more regularly if necessary — if we start to see serious outbreaks.”
Cox said the group is concerned about all populations and will reach out and respond to questions from community leaders, if they have specific needs. For example, those who are undocumented should know, “this is not being used for law enforcement purposes. This is being used to keep people safe and make sure it doesn’t spread,” he said.
In an effort to get reliable information to people, the state set up a website coronavirus.utah.gov and a twitter account for the task force at @UtahCoronavirus.
“Please, we encourage you to use trusted sources,” Cox said of efforts to keep up with the fluid situation. “Hygiene is very important, much like flu season, although this is a more deadly virus. I think we have to point that out. But it is still preventable, that the same way we prevent the common cold and the same way we prevent the flu, and that is by good handwashing. We should stop shaking hands as often as we do, and those types of things that will make a difference.”