It’s been three years since a virus that originated 6,873 miles from here significantly altered life as we knew it. Almost overnight, phrases like social distancing, shelter in place, contact tracing, distance learning, herd immunity and who says I have to wear a mask? entered our vocabulary.
Looking back, how did Utah fare handling the pandemic? I asked that question of three people who were on the COVID-19 front lines. Granted, they’re all biased, since all live in Utah, but to a person they give the state good marks compared to the rest of America, albeit with a few caveats.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that the most boosterish is a politician.
“No one else did as well as we did,” said Stuart Adams, president of the Utah Senate.
And he has statistics to back it up.
“In every analysis of what was done, taking into account the three key factors of mortality rate, the economy and education, Utah has come out on top,” the senator noted.
He cites several studies, including one by the University of Illinois and another by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that bear this out. Utah’s per capita mortality rate, at 1,649 deaths per one million population (a percentage of .004), is third lowest in the country, barely behind Hawaii and Vermont. Our economy was the fourth quickest to recover, behind only Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. And our schools were fifth quickest to reopen, behind Wyoming, Arkansas, Florida and South Dakota.
Combine the three categories and Utah rates No. 1.
The senate president credits a quick response by the Legislature in giving Utah a head start. Just one month into the lockdown, a special legislative session brought people together from the public health, business and political sectors to come up with a game plan.
“Never experienced anything in my entire life with so much pressure,” said Adams, “not knowing if we were making the right decisions if people would live or not live or if people’s businesses and the economy would survive.
“With 20/20 hindsight, we can look back and say we did well. But it was not by chance and it was not by any one person. We had so much input, so much collaboration, so many people wanting to do the right thing.”
Dr. Angela Dunn was perhaps the most famous Utahn during those dark days of 2020 and early 2021. Certainly she was the most-seen. As the state epidemiologist, she was the face of public health’s response to the growing pandemic.
“I don’t know if it’s fair to compare states; we’re all so different,” she said diplomatically, before agreeing, “Ultimately I think we fared really well.
“We had strong health care systems and networks that allowed us to reach who needed to be reached. We took long-term care very seriously before the pandemic, and that allowed us to protect our frail population from the beginning — although we can do better protecting the marginalized and under-resourced communities.”
The pandemic, she said, “highlighted the close dependence between health care and the economy. We learned to put those two together.”
Not that it was easy. “There was a big learning curve combining politics and public health,” she said. “The nature of public health, when we’re effective and things are going well, nobody notices. Looking back, at first it was exhilarating, adrenaline-pumping excitement — OK, this is what we were trained to do, we have a great team, let’s save lives — but then the politics entered in and that impacted the fun. That was a long time to be under stress.”
Dunn is now executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department. Her term as state epidemiologist ended in May 2021.
She was replaced by Dr. Leisha Nolen, who has seen Utah through the waning days of the pandemic’s heyday. Nolen was in Alaska, working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in March 2020 when COVID-19 first arrived.
“I think Utah’s fared quite well,” she said. “That’s partially policy and partially who we are. Utah’s a very young state, with more children and young adults compared to other states. Utahns don’t smoke as much, don’t have as much high blood pressure, so in the beginning we were sort of biased to having a better outcome than other states. We just had less of those most likely to get sick.”
The new state epidemiologist sees two main worries as COVID-19 lingers.
One is the fact that 27% of the state remains unvaccinated (Utah ranks 28th out of the 50 states in vaccination percentage).
“That’s a significant percent without vaccine,” she said. “That’s a tragedy when we know it’s such good medicine and such good protection.
“That means we still have people vulnerable. In the last 28 days, statistics show that people unvaccinated are five times more likely to die from COVID than those fully vaccinated and nine times more than those with an updated COVID booster.”
Her other concern: the fact that CDC statistics show that Utah has the fifth highest percent of people with long COVID (symptoms lasting more than three months). According to the latest data, 18.6% of people who have had COVID-19 say they have had or currently have long COVID.
“That’s 2.5% of Utahns with significant limitations on their activities,” said Nolen. “On a population scale that’s huge. It’s easy to look at the numbers and say so few people died because we did excellently in our state. But we have people who were affected who could have avoided it and might have something that could affect them the rest of their lives.
“So to say we won it all I think is inaccurate.”