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5 questions for Utah’s governor about COVID-19, omicron, the unvaccinated, and where we go from here

Gov. Spencer Cox’s first year as governor began and ended with the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s why he’s ‘incredibly optimistic’ for 2022.

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his first year as governor during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion.
Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his first year as governor during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

When Gov. Spencer Cox was sworn in as Utah’s 18th governor almost exactly a year ago, he took charge of a state embroiled in crisis as Utah’s case rate and death toll from COVID-19 was continuing to climb.

Today, COVID-19 continues to be the top issue facing the state. Now — even though vaccines are readily available to essentially anyone who wants one — cases continue to strain hospitals. As of this week, less than 63% of the state’s population ages 5 and up had been fully vaccinated. Nearly 4,000 Utahns have died of the disease.

And a new wild card is in play. The heavily mutated, highly transmissible omicron variant is here, already sweeping the nation. Health experts warn omicron could become the new dominant strain of the virus in Utah and perhaps the whole country as early as New Year’s Day.

As Cox’s first year as Utah’s governor came to a close, we asked him to answer five questions about the COVID-19 pandemic, if omicron is at all changing his administration’s approach to the pandemic, what his message is to overwhelmed health care workers, and what’s in store for us in 2022.

1. Deseret News: Do you agree with what Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said recently that the COVID-19 emergency is “over” and that it’s the unvaccinated’s “own darn fault” if they contract COVID-19?

Gov. Spencer Cox: Well, Gov. Polis is a good friend, and I think we agree on many things. I’ve been really interested to watch how he governs. I think he’s surprised some people in that he’s taking a very common sense approach to governing, which is what we’re trying to do as well.

And so he’ll say things that maybe the left hasn’t said and sounds more like the right because it’s a common sense position, and I really admire that about him. I guess what I would say to that is — and this is something that I said last week, and I believe it very strongly — and that is that we have all the tools available now for people.

We have vaccines, we have boosters for those vaccines, we have antivirals now, monoclonal antibodies, and we will have more tools shortly with antiviral medications. We have N95 masks for people to protect themselves and to protect others. We understand more about how this virus spreads than ever before.

And so to that extent, I think he’s right. Again, there’s only so much the government can do, and we’ve done all of those things. Now, there’s some other things that I still wish that we had done better and wish that the federal government had done better and we’re still having some of those discussions. But for the most part, we’ve got things there.

And so ultimately, then, it is the responsibility of everyone to now take care of themselves and to do what they need to do to get through this, now that we know how to manage this a little better. And so I would agree with him on that point.

DN: So you agree with him, but maybe not as bluntly?

Yes, maybe not quite as bluntly as he put it. But we all have to manage risk, and some people manage risk differently, right? And so I think, again, we’ve given the tools out there now. So that piece of the pandemic is over, versus the conversation that we were having a year ago, when we were just barely getting N95 masks back, and we were just barely getting vaccines, and there certainly weren’t enough to go around at that point. And so that’s why I think the conversation has to be different right now than it was a year ago.

2. DN: But the new thing that wasn’t around before is omicron. That’s surging across other states, plus doctors are warning us that could soon overcome delta as the dominant strain here in Utah. So is the state doing anything new to stop the spread with this new variant?

Cox: You know, we will watch very closely. And I’m not going to say for sure no because I think that that would be a mistake to. But we’re fortunate in that we get to learn a little bit from what’s happening in other places, not just internationally, of course, with what’s happening in South Africa, what we’re seeing in Denmark and the U.K., but what’s happening on the coasts. And we’ll see.

There are some good signs when it comes to the spread of this — that certainly hospitalization rates and, it looks like, fatality rates are much, much lower, that we are starting to see an uncoupling between the viral cases, the rates and the rates of hospitalizations and deaths. So that decoupling is really, really good news.

It also seems like this comes on really fast and burns out just as fast. That’s what we’ve seen so far. The bad news is that it spreads really fast, like faster than delta and faster than alpha or beta for sure. And that lots of people who are vaccinated are going to get it, and certainly lots of people that are unvaccinated are going to get it.

So I don’t know if there will be any additional changes, but the very things that Gov. Polis said and that I just shared — all of those tools, I think, make it less likely that there will be major changes.

We do know how to protect ourselves. And it’s been really interesting with this wave to hear more and more people understanding how important it is to keep kids in school, and how important it is to keep our economies open.

Certainly if the case fatality rate is significantly lower than delta, and if it does look more like the flu or even more mild in those case fatality rates, then that would be good news for all of us.

Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his first year as governor during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.
Gov. Spencer Cox talks about his first year as governor during an interview at the Governor’s Mansion in Salt Lake City on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

3. DN: Critics might have this view that the state is acting like the pandemic is over, and people are just walking around like the COVID-19 is just done. Is there any scenario that your administration would adopt more restrictions to stop the spread of COVID given the new variant?

Cox: Well, again any restrictions would have to be in collaboration with the Legislature. And so that’s a very important caveat. And so, you know, I don’t like to operate in hypotheticals just because, we’ll see.

We have to see what happens and make those decisions, but we are constantly in contact with our state epidemiologist, and our Department of Health, and they are in contact with their colleagues across the country. And so again, it’s less likely because of (our tools).

And to respond to the critics, we’re not acting like the pandemic’s over — at all. What we‘re acting like is that we are in a pandemic with tools available for everyone to protect themselves.

And so, if you’re at risk — high risk — then as omicron starts to move in here, then you’re probably going to have to, you know, be careful and spend more time at home and not go out to restaurants and those types of things.

We have N95 masks available for people and children now to protect themselves. Hopefully everyone is getting boosted, because we do know that boosted rates are very effective against the current variant. And so we’re not acting like that. We’re constantly messaging on it and telling people that this is serious. Take it seriously and protect yourselves and your family.

4. DN: What’s your message to burned out health workers, those that are working in this overwhelming environment, feeling demoralized, feeling like they’re not getting paid enough to keep working like this. What’s your message to them?

Cox: My message is thank you. I’m so sorry that these last few years have been so difficult for you. We are indebted to you in ways we never understood before. And we support you and we care deeply about you. And thank you for hanging in there. And thank you for helping us get through this next couple months.

DN: What would you say to them if they said, ‘Then do something about it?’

Cox: Look, we’ve learned about human behavior. And, quite honestly, it’s not changing that much from state to state regardless of what those (policies) are. Everyone’s burned out. Everyone’s tired right now. And it looks like, again with this variant, lots of people are going to get it. We’ve seen that in blue states. We’ve seen that in red states. We’ve seen it in states that have really, really heavy restrictions and those that have very light restrictions.

And so, we’re going to continue to work with people, and we will continue to encourage people. We will get people the very best data and the very best information that we can so that they can make those decisions.

And hopefully, at this point with so many vaccinations and so many boosted and so much spread of delta and the original strain, that there will be enough immunity here to keep people out of the hospital and keep those rates very low.

You know, we’re very excited about the numbers that came out today (Dec. 20). It feels great. We’re finally well below 500 hospitalizations. You know, we had a high of 600. We’re below 1,000 cases per day on a rolling average now, so it should be a time to be celebrating, that those delta numbers are coming down. And unfortunately we know that this other variant is right around the corner, but it remains to be seen how they will interact together since we’re just barely coming off of our high with delta.

5. DN: In a lot of ways 2021 felt a lot like a continuation of 2020. Is there any end to this in your view? What’s in store for us in 2022?

Cox: I think there is good news, and that is while it may feel a lot like 2020 — and I’m sure there’s some truth to that — part of that is because we’re not very good at remembering the bad things. We tend to only remember the good things. ... Here’s what I mean by that.

2020 was really bad. We shut down schools. I mean, everyone stayed home for, you know, for months. Almost everyone. And it was so scary because we didn’t have any tools available back then. And I think we’ve forgotten how difficult that was.

And while 2021 was difficult, we kept our schools open, which is a really big deal. People were able to go back to work. We have the lowest unemployment in our state’s history.

These are positive things to celebrate. Politico just came out with a ranking of all 50 states based on four different categories of how they handled the pandemic (health, economy, social, and education), and Utah tied for second (for its average of all four categories).

Politico recently ranked all 50 states for how they fared in the pandemic, based on how state decisions impacted lives, jobs, education, and social well-being. Utah tied for second place based on the average of all four scores.
Politico recently ranked all 50 states for how they fared in the pandemic, based on how state decisions impacted lives, jobs, education, and social well-being. Utah tied for second place based on the average of all four scores.
Politico.com

Cox: So 2021 was better in so many ways and for so many people than 2020.

I hear that often, ‘Oh, this year was just as bad as last year.’ And I think if you really sit down and think through everything that happened collectively. Now, for some people, obviously, it was bad and probably worse, but I would argue that 2021 was better than 2020.

And I truly believe that 2022 is going to be better than 2021.

I did talk to one health care professional who said that something similar to this happened 100 years ago with the flu pandemic and that there was a very fast-moving variant that kind of came through, and that was seen as kind of the last pandemic piece, and then it became endemic after that.

And so I think there’s a lot of hope that this wave might be the one that really does get us to to the next (chapter), and that then we have antibiotic virals readily available, and that 2022 — after January and February — ends up being a really great time where we start that healing process and we start bringing people together again.

And so I’m incredibly optimistic for 2022.