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Pandemic stats show Utah can take a bow

Health care workers test people for COVID-19 at Intermountain Healthcare’s mobile testing unit at Park City High School on Saturday, April 18, 2020.
Health care workers test people for COVID-19 at Intermountain Healthcare’s mobile testing unit at Park City High School on Saturday, April 18, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — If containing the pandemic were a sports competition, Utah would be headed to the playoffs.

I don’t know about you, but to try and make some sense of what’s going on, I like to look at the statistics, and in this age of instantaneous information there are plenty of statistics to look at.

In addition to the excellent site maintained by the Utah Department of Health — coronavirus.utah.gov — another one I keep open on my laptop is called worldometer, a reference website that tracks the number of cases, deaths, recoveries, tests, etc. in real time, as they happen, all over the world. I don’t know how they do it, but then I don’t know how Siri recognizes my voice, either.

Worldometer’s tracking of the individual states in the U.S. clearly shows that in relation to the rest of the country, whatever Utah is doing, it’s working.

As of the weekend, Utah ranked fifth in the U.S. in the least amount of COVID-19 deaths per capita (13 for every million people); fifth in tests given (approaching 30,000 per million); and second in the important category of deaths as a percentage of cases (only South Dakota is better). In other words, the vast majority of Utahns who have it are getting better as opposed to dying.

If coronavirus containment was a gymnastics meet, Utah would definitely be on the podium in the all-around.

As to the reasons why things have gone so relatively well, the natural assumption is that Utah, with the youngest population of the 50 states, was healthier to begin with, especially when it comes to respiratory factors.

Utah has the fewest number of smokers in the country (8.9%, the lowest by far) and ranks No. 4 in fewest number of adults who are obese (25.3% of Utahns are considered excessively overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control; only California, Hawaii and Colorado have leaner populations. The national obesity average for adults in America, by the way, is 35% and climbing, which probably ought to also qualify as a pandemic).

But as much as statistics can support a good theory, they can also throw a cloud on one.

In perusing the worldometer stats for the U.S., I noticed that another state doing as well, or better, as Utah in pandemic scorekeeping is West Virginia.

West Virginia ranks in the top 10 in fewest deaths per million (17 going into the weekend, compared to Utah’s 13) and in coronavirus cases-per-million (a little under 600, or half Utah’s rate of 1,200-plus).

And yet, the Mountain State ranks 50th, as in worst, in smoking per capita (26%) and obesity per capita (38.1%) — in addition to having the oldest population in America. In these categories, Utah and West Virginia are direct opposites.

Scratching my head over this, I called the Utah Department of Health to see if I could make some sense of it.

Epidemiologist Keegan McCaffrey took my call. McCaffrey is part of the team of scientists who keep the numbers up to date on coronavirus.utah.gov.

Know what McCaffrey said when I asked him why Utah and West Virginia would have similar coronavirus stats?

“Hmmm, that’s a great question.”

He thought about it a little longer, and then said, “I don’t really know.”

He continued, “There’s a lot we don’t know yet about this virus. It’s so new, and we’re really just getting started. A lot of it’s a mystery, one I think we’ll learn a lot about in the coming months and years.”

Besides, McCaffrey hasn’t had the time to look at or ponder what’s going on elsewhere — in West Virginia or anywhere else.

He’s had his head down since January working 12 hour days crunching Utah’s numbers.

“We’ve been tracking this since the get-go,” he said. “I think what we’ve been able to do highlights the strengths of our health system in Utah. We have the reporting mechanisms in place that allow us to get data out daily to the public and the policymakers.”

Data that, by the way, resulted in the lockdown, social distancing, shelter-in-place safeguards that were quickly put into place more than a month ago and have made Utah a national leader in coronavirus response and success.

“What we’re seeing are really stable case counts since early April, even as testing increases,” said McCaffrey. “What we haven’t seen is that exponential growth we’re really concerned about; what we would have seen if we hadn’t done early intervention.

“We have a long road ahead of us. I don’t want us to be waving the victory flag just yet. But what we’re doing is working. That’s what the numbers show. That’s what’s happening here.”

He knows a lot about that.