It’s never a good look to celebrate prematurely. Whether it’s dropping the ball on the one-yard line or declaring “Mission Accomplished” a decade or two early, the best you can hope for is to be memed into oblivion. It’s a lesson we’d be wise to revisit as we continue to face the scourge of novel coronavirus in the Beehive State. To use a term that should resonate with Utahns, we may be getting out over our skis as we reopen the state.
Putting it bluntly, we haven’t defeated coronavirus. We’re still in the clutch of a pandemic, and despite appearances and attitudes, Utah is experiencing more community spread of COVID-19 than at any prior point. New cases are up 138% vs. two weeks ago, meaning we’re averaging 338 new cases per day. Most of the state is operating under the low-risk (yellow) guidelines despite this fact.
However, there is nuance in understanding these statistics. “It’s important to synthesize the data in Utah by accounting for population and geographic factors,” says Sam Shewan, Physician Assistant with University of Utah Urgent Care. “Even with the recent doubling of cases making Utah a national hotspot, the number of current infections is about .2% of the population. In New York, as much as 11% of the population had an active COVID-19 infection. We’re an order of magnitude off from what New York experienced at its peak.”
The urge to resume normal economic activity is validated by the tangible human costs of economic cataclysm. Months of isolation and upended lifestyles has added a layer of fatigue to our vigilance. Our attention is being diverted in other worthy directions, namely towards the righteous protests in service of spurring action to finally achieve the racial equality our country has long promised and never come close to delivering. This is understandable, but we can’t just forget about an unprecedented public health crisis, especially since coronavirus disproportionately affects minority groups and has laid bare the systemic inequity so many are justly rallying to eradicate.
Our response to the virus can’t be effective if it’s polarizing and politicized. We need to trust experts and use the science and data as the foundation of our decision making. Coronavirus isn’t “a flu,” as some are apt to say. Those of us who aren’t in high-risk groups need to recognize COVID-19’s staggering toll and empathize with the threat it poses and the fear it instills for many in our community.
Masks can’t be a point of contention. Wearing them isn’t just about protecting you; they protect others. I understand the desire to go shopping, eat at restaurants and regain a sense of normalcy, but we need to have the decency to help protect the workers who make that possible as well as other patrons who want to do the same. “A recent study showed regular mask wearing by 50% of the population would reduce the R0 of COVID-19 to less than one,” Shewan says. “Simple behavioral changes can reduce the spread of coronavirus to manageable levels.”
I can’t say with certainty what the path forward should be, and there are reasonable conclusions to be drawn on many sides of the debate. My wife and I have a nearly one-year-old daughter, who we were planning to put back in daycare when it reopened in early June. When we saw Utah’s active COVID-19 cases nearly double in the days leading up to that, we opted to keep her home while we see what happens in the next few weeks, at which point we’ll reassess. On the other hand, I can’t judge anyone for resuming childcare so they can get back to work. I’m writing this from my couch at home while my daughter takes a nap. That’s not an option for everyone.
The point I’m making is this isn’t over, and we can’t get complacent. National numbers may appear to be declining, but that’s not the case if you strip out New York, which is finally, mercifully emerging after bearing the brunt of the pandemic in the United States. We need to keep a close eye on coronavirus infection trends as we transition. “States have to have a willingness tighten restrictions when significant case numbers rise to help us jump off the exponential part of the curve. That will allow us to open things up a little more,” Shewan says. “Fortunately, our leadership in Utah has shown a willingness to do so up to this point. I hope it will continue.”
Triumphing over coronavirus will take an enormous communal effort. Utahns should be proud of the way we rallied when the virus first took hold and strive for the same kind of collective vigilance as we attempt to return to normal. Reopening successfully requires each of us to be diligent about maintaining social distancing, wearing masks and washing our hands, or we’re going to help the virus surge to a point where we need to shut things down again. As we begin to open up in Utah, it might feel like we have a pretty nice lead. Just remember there’s a lot of game left.