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Utah’s Doctor: ‘I think we’re winning’ ... knock on wood

Exactly one year since the lockdown, Utah state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn looks at the data and thinks the future looks bright

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State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn works in her office at the Utah Department of Health in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. Dunn has been at the forefront of Utah’s fight with the coronavirus pandemic for more than 12 months.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — As if to underscore the wild, unpredictable, turbulent ride a little virus we can’t see has taken us all on over the past 12 months, Dr. Angela Dunn, the composed, confident, practical-thinking physician-scientist with three degrees — the acknowledged smartest person in the room — reached out and knocked on the wooden table in front of her before she made her forecast for the coming 12 months.

Yeah, it’s been that kind of year.

“I think we might” — here she inserted her three knocks — “I think we might be beating this,” she said with more than a little enthusiasm.

“I know, my job is risk assessment, so it’s never 100%. But we’re racing the variants right now and I think we’re winning.”

Dunn, of course, is the state epidemiologist –— Utah’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci. In normal times, the state epidemiologist, and the national epidemiologist for that matter, is as well-known as the definition of epidemiology. 

But these are not normal times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Dunn into our living rooms and our various streaming devices on a regular basis ever since the state lockdown took place exactly a year ago this weekend. She’s “Utah’s Doctor” — the person the state trotted out to announce case counts, testing percentages, and remind everyone to wash their hands, wear their masks and hang in there.

“The COVID weather reporter,” she calls herself.


State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks remotely during a briefing with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 24, 2020. During the briefing, Herbert discussed the importance of wearing a mask and the state’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

But she’s been more than that. She’s given a face to the crisis, hope to the cause, calm to the chaos and data to the masses. Somebody was keeping track. Somebody knew what was going on. Sort of.

“When you’re dealing with a new virus you don’t know how it acts and you’re making a lot of assumptions on very limited data,” Dunn recalled of those dark days in March of 2020. “And all our early data was coming out of China, which had limitations in terms of transparency and trustworthiness. Really, our whole country was making assumptions based on very little concrete information.”

Two factors that would have been game-changers are obvious in hindsight.

“If we’d known that asymptomatic spread causes most of our infections, and how well masks work — if we’d known those two things when we started I think we would have controlled this a lot quicker,” she said.

“In the beginning, we’d find a (positive) case and move forward from when their symptoms started. Now we do 48 hours prior to their symptoms because we know that before someone has symptoms they’re able to spread the virus.”

As for masks, she points to the virtual lack of a flu season this year to demonstrate their value.

“Our flu season was nonexistent, really. We’ve had less than 20 cases hospitalized this year and zero deaths. Usually we have hundreds of hospitalizations. Of course COVID is more transmissible than the flu, but the same principle applies to both. Masks cut infections down. It’s dramatic how quickly the (COVID-19) cases dropped in Salt Lake County when everyone started wearing masks.”

Being able to predict what the virus will do has been gratifying, she said.

“I think one of the coolest things, if that’s the right adjective, that we’ve seen through this pandemic is actually how much we as epidemiologists can predict what’s going to happen. When certain policies are in place we see the cases drop; when certain policies get lifted we see the cases rise; when the vaccines started we’re seeing cases drop. So it is really predictable, and it’s also predictable on the sad side. We’ve seen our populations that are usually impacted by health disparities have the greatest health disparities in terms of infection, hospitalization and death, and now lower vaccine rates.”

Asked whether the past year was worse or better than she thought it would be, Dunn did not hesitate.

“Oh, worse,” she said, “In terms of the potential to overwhelm our health care system, we got way, way too close for comfort.”

But the system didn’t break, and now, if the light up ahead really is the end of the tunnel, what is the infectious disease expert personally looking forward to?

“I want to have a huge party with all my public health friends, with dancing and hugging and just celebrating that we can be together. I’m on the introvert scale but I’m really thirsty for socialization.”

And when does Utah’s Doctor think this might happen?

“I really don’t know when,” she said, then paused before adding, “I turn 40 in August, so I’m hopeful I can have a big party by then.”

Knock on wood.