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KSL Investigates: Exclusive Interview With Utah’s Coronavirus Task Force Chief

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Utahns have big questions on the state’s fight against coronavirus. KSL Investigators took those questions to the man in charge of the Coronavirus Task Force, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, in an exclusive one-on-one interview.

Many have asked why aren’t we under a statewide stay-at-home order? Do we have enough supplies? When can we get back to normal?

Statewide Stay At Home Orders

To call the Lt. Governor’s life “challenging” these days is an understatement.

“I don’t sleep anymore,” said Cox. “It all keeps me up at night.”

When we asked what he’s taking the most heat for, the stay at home directive first comes to his mind.

“There’s a group of people that say we’re doing way too much and we’re overblowing this, and then there’s another group of people that say we aren’t doing nearly enough,” he said.

Cox referred to the fact Utah is one of just seven states that does not have a mandatory stay at home order with an enforcement mechanism.

Governor Herbert has issued a Stay Safe, Stay Home directive, which Cox said is almost the same as orders in other states.

“It’s very much like a stay at home order,” Cox said. “There are very little differences between that and what you’re seeing in some other states.”

The main difference is that the directive carries no enforcement, like fines or criminal charges.

So why hasn’t Utah issued a statewide shelter in place order?

Cox said it comes down to the rate of spread varying greatly in Utah’s urban and rural counties. The directive allows counties to make decisions on what is best for their populace.

“It’s important to note that the stay at home order in Summit County is just the same as a stay at home order in any other state, and that there are differences right now in the rate of spread and the geographical differences in the state,” he said.

Data from the Southeast Utah Health Department showed three cases of coronavirus and zero hospitalizations, while Salt Lake County showed 807 cases and 73 hospitalizations.

Cox emphasized that a statewide order isn’t off the table if people don’t comply with the Governor’s directive.

“If we see additional spread, we may need to go to a statewide order,” he said.

Is Utah Doing Enough Testing?

The most effective way to prevent community spread of coronavirus is testing. Cox said Utah is doing well in that department, ranking fifth in the nation for testing per capita.

Last week, Gov. Herbert announced a new partnership with the private sector, with the hopes of opening eight more drive-thru sites that would test 500 people per site per day.

“That’s going to be a game changer for us, because it will allow us to test not just people who have symptoms, but people they’ve been in contact with,” said Cox.

What Cox referred to is contact tracing. He described it as a surgical approach of ridding the state of the virus. When someone tests positive, they find every single person they’ve been in contact with, call those people, and have them self-isolate as well as test for coronavirus.

Cox said it has worked in South Korea, and the state has put 1,000 employees to work training on how to conduct contact tracing.

“We can’t social distance forever,” Cox said. “We’ve got to find a way to get back to work, and this is one way to do that.”

Do We Have Enough PPE for the Surge?

While getting people back to work is a major concern, treating the sick and protecting those on the front lines is an even bigger one.

The numbers released last week show Utah is fully equipped with hospital beds and ventilators when the state hits the currently projected peak.

When it comes to personal protective equipment, PPE, we don’t have enough. PPE is considered safety equipment like masks, shields, and gloves.

“That’s a concern for the state, and we know we’re behind,” said Cox. “We have enough right now, but we don’t have enough for the next couple months.”

Cox told KSL they are running down every possible avenue, including tips sent to their office, on where they can acquire PPE supplies. One shipment came from the federal government weeks ago, but none have been seen since.

“We are working with the private sector, looking at opportunities in other countries where this stuff is being produced,” said Cox. “Can we get more of it here? We’re pulling out all the stops to make sure that we have the equipment that is necessary. And again, every state is competing for this, and every country is competing for this and so we’re doing the very best we can.”

On Social Distancing & the Economy

KSL Investigators get daily emails from Utahns frustrated at others’ lack of social distancing.

So we asked: “What are your thoughts…that there are still people who are congregating in some places, and it sounds like more than you would want?”

Cox had tweeted earlier in the week about a study showing 94 percent of respondents report they have changed behaviors to social distancing and are following the directive.

“That’s a really good sign people are taking this seriously,” he said. “Even in those states that have more serious lockdowns there, there are still people out playing volleyball, and we see those reports all the time.”

Cox said ultimately, it’s what they see in infection rates and hospitalizations that largely influence policy.

“What matters to us is really looking at the data. Are people taking it seriously, and is there community spread, and how widespread is that?” he said. “Those are the levers that we have to carefully monitor and pull when necessary.”

Others have written to KSL frustrated that restrictions are killing business.

Cox sympathized, and said he’s acutely aware of the economic struggles people are facing.

“It’s tough. We spent 10 years building the best economy in the country, more private sector job growth than any other state over the last 10 years,” he said. “In three weeks, that’s gone.”

He’s hopeful the ”Utah Leads Together” plan laid out by the state’s Economic Response Task Force will minimize economic disruption.

“We really believe that by saving lives and making these hard decisions right now, we will actually have a stronger economy down the road and we’ll be able to get back to economic activity much quicker by making these sacrifices now,” Cox said.

What Does Utah Like in mid-May or June, After the Peak?

Many are eager to return to life as it was before pandemic hit, but Cox said that life may not be the same, from how we go out in public, to how we work.

“Until we have a vaccine, and can get everybody vaccinated, we do know that there will be changes to the way that we do things,” said Cox. “The wearing of masks when we’re in a public place to prevent the spread of the droplets that can infect people, I think we will see much, much more of that. I think it will become more routine. I think this this idea of maintaining a distance where we can will carry on for some time again until we have a vaccine.”

Health experts have said a vaccine could be 12 to 18 months away.

“I think that people who can work from home will probably do more of that than we’ve seen in the past. That can be a very positive thing. It’s something we were starting to do here at the state more, and there are just so many benefits from being able to do that,” he said.

Cox said it’s unknown at this point when restrictions may loosen, but it will likely not be a universal reversal on all restrictions at once.

“These are highly educated guesses,” said Cox. “There’s still a lot of guesswork going into this amongst the professionals and the epidemiologist.”

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.


Coronavirus Resources

How Do I Prevent It?

The CDC has some simple recommendations, most of which are the same for preventing other respiratory illnesses or the flu:

  • Avoid close contact with people who may be sick
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue and then throw the tissue in the trash
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Always wash your hands with soap and water if your hands are visibly dirty.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

How To Get Help

If you’re worried you may have COVID-19, you can contact the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 to speak to trained healthcare professionals. You can also use telehealth services through your healthcare providers.

Additional Resources

If you see evidence of PRICE GOUGING, the Utah Attorney General’s Office wants you to report it. Common items in question include toilet paper, water, hand sanitizer, certain household cleaners, and even cold medicine and baby formula. Authorities are asking anyone who sees price gouging to report it to the Utah Division of Consumer Protection at 801-530-6601 or 800-721-7233. The division can also be reached by email at consumerprotection@utah.gov.

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