SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox encouraged young Utahns to use caution during the COVID-19 pandemic in a virtual town hall-style meeting Wednesday afternoon.
The meeting was hosted by the Emerging Leaders Initiative of Utah, an organization for young professionals in the state. Cox, who leads the state's Coronavirus Task Force, answered wide-ranging questions submitted on Facebook and on the Zoom video chat service.
Speaking specifically to young adults, Cox encouraged them to heed health warnings and take the virus seriously, calling them "perfect vectors for spreading this disease and killing others" because they are less likely to exhibit serious symptoms.
"I know we all feel invincible when we're younger," he said, "but we plead with young people to take this very seriously."
Though Cox pointed out that young Utahns are just as likely as anyone else to contract COVID-19, they do have a lower rate of death and hospitalization, barring underlying health conditions. "Let me just assure you, as I talk to young people who have been hospitalized with this, it is not something you want to play around with," Cox said. "It is just devastating. We still don't know the long-term impacts, especially to lung damage."
Cox said the state needs young Utahns to "step up."
"Because while it may not impact you seriously, you could certainly be the person who passes it on to someone who does have serious complications or loses their life."
Cox touched on a wide variety of topics during the hourlong session.
Fielding a question about the Swedish approach to the virus, which involves less-stringent policies that have kept more businesses open, Cox called it an interesting case study.
"It is important to point out that Sweden has put in restrictive measures, just not as restrictive as us," he said.
Cox said the concept of herd immunity — the idea that the virus will dissipate once a large-enough portion of the population becomes infected, and then immune — is important, but can also be "overstated."
"In the U.K., they started trying that and then realized very quickly that their hospitals were going to get seriously overwhelmed," Cox said. He said the state needs "a better understanding of the true nature of this virus and how widespread it is," before it can consider easing restrictions.
"Because we have limited testing in our country, because of some serious mistakes that were made at the federal level in February ... we really don't know how much of that immunity is out there."
Cox said new tests are being developed that will help identify people who have already had the virus and are now immune.
Protecting vulnerable populations
Cox said the state is concerned with protecting vulnerable communities, like the poor or ethnic minorities, who may be disproportionately impacted by the virus.
"We are a more diverse state than we were 10 years ago, significantly so, in all the positive ways," Cox said. "I will say, the one area where we are seeing a disproportionate spread, and that we are concerned about, is with the Navajo Nation in southeastern Utah. While most of that is on the Arizona side, it is impacting on the Utah side in San Juan County. So we're doing everything possible to get resources down there."
Cox said the state supports Utahns who want to get outside and exercise while maintaining proper social distancing.
"On the direct question of exercising and getting outdoors, we actually are supportive of that," he said. "We think it's very important for our emotional and mental health."
Cox said he's seen a lot of "social distance shaming," which he said can be "helpful" in some instances. "But just because you see people outside, and just because you see some people together, doesn't mean that they're not social distancing."
He said one Utah mother was criticized for not social distancing after having a picnic with her children on her front lawn. "That's not a thing," Cox said. "You get to be around your kids."
One question involved a recent Utah Policy poll that found many Utahns think the media is exaggerating the severity of the pandemic.
"This is always a tough one. Let me just state for the record that I think the news media here in the state of Utah has just been incredible throughout this pandemic," Cox said. "We work very closely with them. They have literally saved lives by getting the right information out, by helping to emphasize how important this is."
Still, Cox said it's fair to question if the national media may "overstate" the problem sometimes. He bemoaned the tribal nature of the public debate.
"We live in this world now where we can just surround ourselves with confirmation bias and media sources that say exactly what we want them to say," Cox said. "We don't ever have to listen to a contrary opinion, and I think that's very dangerous.
"I think some of that may be coming from some of the modeling that's being done out there. And the problem with models is, they're all terrible. They're all terrible because it's impossible to model this."
"I do oversee elections. It's also no secret that I'm a candidate for governor," Cox said in response to a question about how the virus may impact state elections. He explained that he has recused himself from all decisions about election procedural changes because of his candidacy.
"To your broader point, I watched with horror what was happening in Wisconsin yesterday," he said. Wisconsin conducted its primary election Tuesday despite the pandemic.
"I thought it was just a travesty and a huge mistake," he said.
Cox said it's very "fortuitous" that Utah has a robust vote-by-mail system in place. He said the elections office is working with county commissioners to determine how in-person polling sites may function this year. "We'll see where we are in June" before the state primary, he said.
'Slight possibility' of school in May
Utah K-12 schools are currently suspended until May 1. "That decision is being reevaluated," Cox said. "There's a slight possibility that we'll be able to have some school in May. I wouldn't put a really high percentage on that, though."
He said the state hopes to return to "something approaching normalcy as the next school year approaches."
"We certainly believe that's going to happen. I'm incredibly optimistic about that piece."