SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert defended the actions of state leaders during the coronavirus pandemic at a news conference Thursday, but added that they are willing to listen to recommendations and evaluations of the state's response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Herbert said that state leaders have always had a "common purpose" of saving lives and preventing COVID-19 spread, even if they haven't always been in unanimous agreement about certain decisions.
He also acknowledged that some of the decisions the state made may not have been the best in hindsight, but in the moment, Utah leaders were doing their best and acting in good faith to help the people of Utah.
"I don’t think anybody expects us to be perfect," Herbert said. "We are deeply committed to being good stewards of the taxpayers’ funds."
Herbert, along with Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and Governor’s Office of Economic Development executive director Val Hale, discussed the current coronavirus situation in the state at a press conference Thursday morning.
Watch the replay of Thursday's event below. State leaders are not expected to hold another COVID-19 press conference until Monday afternoon.
3 new COVID-19 deaths, 129 new cases
One of the deaths was a Salt Lake County woman who was between the ages of 60 and 64, according to Dr. Angela Dunn, the health department's state epidemiologist. The woman was hospitalized at the time of her death.
Another was a man from Salt Lake County who was over the age of 85. He was a resident of a long-term care facility, according to Dunn. The third death was a man from Utah County between the ages of 18 and 60 who was also a resident of a long-term care facility, Dunn said.
Thursday’s totals give Utah 5,724 confirmed cases, with 476 total hospitalizations and 61 total deaths from the disease. Previously, there were 5,595 cases in the state.
The new numbers indicate a 2.3% increase in positive cases since Wednesday. Of the 134,543 people tested in Utah so far, 4.3% have tested positive for COVID-19.
The total number of cases reported by the health department includes all cases of COVID-19 since Utah’s outbreak began, including those who are infected now, those who have recovered from the disease, and those who have died.
As of Wednesday, the health department is estimating that 2,640 people have recovered from the disease. Anyone who was diagnosed with COVID-19 three or more weeks ago and has not died is considered recovered.
The health department has also added some new data sets to its coronavirus dashboard, available at coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts.
Among the newly available data is current hospitalization counts for COVID-19. The dashboard shows that 95 people are currently hospitalized for the disease in Utah as of Wednesday. The hospitalization data is obtained through individual hospitals through a self-reporting system, Dunn added.
Another new addition to the dashboard is a section listing risk factors and exposures. It includes a breakdown of types of COVID-19 cases that were among people with certain risk factors, such as pre-existing health conditions.
The dashboard also breaks down the cases by how they were contracted. The data shows the vast majority of cases, just under 60%, have been transmitted through a person's own household.
About 25% of cases were transmitted through a social interaction, 4.7% in the workplace and about 10.7% through unspecified means, the data shows.
Dunn said it is a mischaracterization of the data to suggest that asking people to stay home makes them more likely to get the disease. Most people have contracted the disease through their own households because most people have been spending much of their time at home throughout the pandemic, she said.
"As society opens, people are going to have exposures outside of their household members and likely be infected due to people outside their household," Dunn said. "So that's why it's super-important that people stay at home when they're sick, they maintain social distance measures when they're able to, and that they're wearing a mask when those social distancing measures are just not possible."
Governor defends state's coronavirus response
Herbert pointed out that though cases of COVID-19 in Utah may continue to rise from day-to-day, looking at those cases alone does not capture the full story of the pandemic in the state.
As the state has increased testing capacity, more cases have been discovered, Herbert said. Dunn and other state health officials predicted that would occur, as well.
A more significant statistic, Herbert said, may be the state's positive test rate for COVID-19, which has lowered to about 4.2% for the last several weeks after being near 5% at the beginning of Utah's pandemic.
Though there is still work to do for the state's pandemic response, Utah is in a good position, Herbert said.
“I think we can feel optimistic," he said. "Unquestionably, this crisis is not over.”
The state loosened some social distancing regulations last week when it transitioned from the red, high-risk zone for COVID-19 to the orange, moderate-risk zone. The state may have the opportunity to move to the next level, low-risk yellow, in a few weeks, Herbert said.
Now that the state's situation is not as "furiously paced," state officials have had an opportunity to take a breath and reflect on how they responded to the crisis, Herbert said.
He defended the actions of state leaders and government officials during the pandemic. He acknowledged criticism that Utah leaders have faced amid controversial pharmaceutical contracts and internal communications disagreements.
Some state contracts haven't gone through the typical bidding process for such government purchases, but it has been out of timely necessity amid a public health emergency, Herbert said. If officials had gone through that process for contracts involving medical equipment and other materials, it would have included requests for proposals and reviews that may have drawn out the process for up to two months or more, he added.
That was simply too long to wait for some of the contracts, Herbert said. For some matters, state leaders also determined they couldn't wait for others to make decisions, such as the federal government, which has been "clumsy" and "slow" at times during the pandemic, he said.
Recently, three governors from other states have contacted Herbert to ask about Utah's response, he said. That shows the state has handled the pandemic well, even though state leaders have never before seen seen anything like the COVID-19 crisis.
Nevertheless, Herbert said he knows the state could have handled some things more appropriately. In particular, Herbert said the state is capable of more effective internal communication.
"There is much that can be learned from our experience here," the governor said.
Two controversial contracts to purchase the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which was previously thought to be a potential treatment for COVID-19, have been canceled between the state and pharmaceutical companies.
Any contracts related to COVID-19 or coronavirus now will be handled by the state's unified pandemic command group, which is headed by Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson.
If anyone is found to be stepping out of line, committing fraud or price gouging as the pandemic continues, Herbert said he would use the full weight of his office to hold those individuals accountable.
New grant program aims to help businesses that rent space
A new grant program will provide $40 million for commercial businesses that rent their office space.
The program will provide up to $10,000 to assist Utah small businesses in paying their rent, according to Val Hale, executive director for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Businesses that have fewer than 100 employees and can demonstrate they have lost at least 50% of their monthly gross revenue after March 1 due to the pandemic are eligible and encouraged to apply.
Grant applications will be available starting Monday at coronavirus.utah.gov/business. They will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
Hale encouraged interested business owners to visit the website before Monday so they will know what they need to apply.
The economic development office is hoping to send out the first checks to businesses through this program by May 15, Hale said. The payments are categorized as grants and will not need to be paid back.
The grants are available through Senate Bill 3006. The bill also provides $20 million for the state's agriculture sector, as well as a residential housing assistance program, Hale said. More information is available about those programs at ag.utah.gov and jobs.utah.gov.