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Kristin Murphy, KSL, File

Utah is flattening the COVID-19 curve, economy may reopen sooner than expected, Lt. Gov. says

By Jacob Klopfenstein, | Posted - Apr. 15, 2020 at 7:11 p.m.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is optimistic that the state’s economy may reopen sooner than officials previously estimated.

But, he acknowledged that Utah leaders must be careful not to act too quickly in the face of an unprecedented global pandemic that no one completely understands yet.

"I’m not sure we fully understand the depth and breadth of what this virus has unleashed. There is real pain: physical, psychological, emotional, economic," Cox wrote in a Twitter thread Wednesday morning. "But there is nowhere in the world I would rather be than here. With you. … We always respond selflessly and with unity in spirit and purpose."

The COVID-19 numbers are promising in Utah, Cox said.

An early model from the National Guard estimated that by this week, Utah would have 9,600 total cases of COVID-19, with 1,200 hospitalizations, according to Cox. Instead, the state has recorded 2,542 cases and 221 hospitalizations.

"This is called flattening the curve and it shows that everything we are doing really is working," said Cox, who leads the Utah COVID-19 Community Task Force.

He noted that the number of positive tests and hospitalizations, as well as the rates of mortality and transmission, are all flat or trending downward in Utah.

He wrote the thread before the Utah Department of Health announced 130 new cases on Wednesday, which is actually a higher number of new cases than has been seen recently. The daily rate of increase has hovered around 100 or fewer new cases for the past week.

One concerning statistic is that the number of tests being conducted in Utah is decreasing, Cox said. The state has the capacity to test up to 4,500 people per day, but fewer than 2,000 are getting tested.

In an effort to increase testing, Utah expanded guidelines for who should get tested earlier this week. Now health officials recommend anyone experiencing a fever, cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches, decreased sense of smell or taste, or sore throat should get tested for the disease.

"The only way out of this is to get more people tested, especially with mild symptoms, so we can understand where the disease is and prevent its spread," Cox said.

Health officials will continue pushing testing and ramping it up as testing supplies become available. Rapid testing and antibody testing, or serology, are two pieces of that effort, he said.

Cox said he is hopeful that the state may be able to progress to the next phase of the "Utah Leads Together" plan for pandemic recovery sooner.

The state is currently in the "urgent" phase of the plan, which originally was estimated to continue for at least another 3-6 weeks. The economic team is now working on a second version of the Utah Leads Together plan that should be available this week and will include more specific instructions for every industry, Cox said.

Version two of the plan also will include strong social distancing, hygiene and mask usage recommendations so that the state will avoid a spike in cases, Cox said. As the economy reopens, authorities want to avoid "super-spreader" events, where large gatherings of people are enclosed for a long period of time, he said.

Those events, such as funerals and church services, have caused a rapid spread of COVID-19 in other places, Cox added.

"When the story of Utah’s response is written, I believe the closure of schools and (especially) churches is the single biggest reason our numbers haven’t exploded," he said.

In Utah, an asymptomatic worker at a nursing home infected several residents with COVID-19, according to Cox. Officials want to avoid any more instances of that at all costs, he said.

Unfortunately, that means schools and churches will take a longer time to reopen so the state avoids any spikes, he added.

Utahns will have to learn to live with this situation for a long time, potentially until a vaccine is developed, which may be over a year away, Cox said. Some "game-changing" medicines may be available by fall, though, he added.

As Utah legislators meet starting tomorrow for a special coronavirus-related session, the state’s economic response to the pandemic must be "robust," Cox said.

Though Cox remained optimistic about Utah’s future, he didn’t mince words when discussing the widespread, lasting impact of COVID-19.

"This pandemic has changed the course of human history forever," he said.

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