'Recover to better': Utah Leads Together 3.0 includes high-risk protections, economic ideas, getting kids in the classroom

'Recover to better': Utah Leads Together 3.0 includes high-risk protections, economic ideas, getting kids in the classroom

(Steve Griffin, KSL)


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SALT LAKE CITY — In March, the first iteration of the Utah Leads Together plan spelled out three phases of the state's response to COVID-19: urgent, stabilization and recovery.

In April, Utah Leads Together 2.0 introduced the color-coded risk levels the state is using now (most of the state is at yellow, or "low risk," while parts remain at the orange "moderate risk").

On Wednesday, state leaders introduced another version of the roadmap document — Utah Leads Together 3.0.

The plan focuses on Utah's high-risk populations, racial and ethnic minority groups, and economic recovery. Here's what it has to say about each:

Protecting Utah's high-risk population

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify several characteristics of high-risk individuals, as spelled out in the Utah Leads Together plan. Risk factors include being 65 or older; living in a nursing home or long-term care facility; lung disease; heart conditions; obesity; underlying medical conditions like diabetes, kidney disease or liver disease; and immunocompromised people like those undergoing cancer treatment, smokers, transplant recipients, and people taking immunosuppressive medications.

The plan says the state will focus on protecting high-risk individuals in state custody, those in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, people who live at home but need assistance, and high-risk individuals who've returned to work and those who work with them.

The document says the state will begin "proactive testing of asymptomatic individuals" at nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Many of Utah's coronavirus-related deaths have come from residents of such facilities, and several outbreaks have been reported.

The Utah Department of Health reports that 109 facilities in Utah have been impacted by COVID-19, with 214 residents testing positive and 39 resident deaths. The health department recommends that high-risk individuals take protective measures above and beyond the general population, like wearing a mask in public settings at all times, staying home as much as possible, and limiting visits with family and friends.

The Utah Labor Commission has developed industry-specific guidance for high-risk individuals in the workplace.

Safeguarding Utah's multicultural community

Recognizing that racial and ethnic minorities have been disproportionately impacted by both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19, Gov. Gary Herbert last month created the Utah Multicultural Commission as a subcommittee of the state coronavirus task force to address these disparities.

A report filed by the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs titled "Needs Among Utah's Multicultural Communities During COVID-19" formed the basis of recommendations in the Utah Leads Together 3.0 plan, it says. Specific findings in the report include a "digital divide" that leaves low-income households with little access to computers, internet and technology, which would help them learn about the pandemic; food insecurity problems exacerbated by stockpiling and depletion of food pantries; misinformation about the virus; and English proficiency problems.

The multicultural subcommittee aims to combat those issues by amplifying coronavirus prevention messages in accessible ways, it says.

Byron Russell, co-chair of the Utah Multicultural Commission, said at a Wednesday news conference that the Utah Leads Together plan "truly saves lives and livelihoods."

"However, the data demonstrates that this pandemic is not impacting all Utahns' lives and livelihoods equally," Russell said. He requested that Utahns "learn the facts of disparities" and help "build a structure to fix the systemic disparities for a lasting, equitable prosperity."

Planning for economic recovery

Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and member of the state's COVID-19 Economic Response Task Force, said Utah entered the coronavirus pandemic "very well economically prepared."

"We know that because our unemployment rate was at its lowest level in state history, we had come through the longest sustained economic expansion in state history, and have one of the most well-diversified economies in America," she said. Those factors helped Utah weather the pandemic with fewer jobless claims than the rest of the country; Gochnour anticipates the state will begin seeing job increases again within the next 30 to 60 days.

"But let's be clear," she said. "This is a massive economic challenge."

The Utah Leads Together 3.0 plan says about 70% of claimants for unemployment insurance filed as "job attached," meaning they were furloughed and expect to return to their previous jobs at some point. But many industries and areas have been hit harder than others.

"Over a third" of continuing jobless claims come from the accommodations and food services, retail trade, and health care and social assistance sectors, the report says. Additionally, tourism and energy counties like Grand, Summit, Garfield, Wasatch and Uintah "have been the most severely impacted as a percent of total economic activity."

The plan recommends "five guiding principles" for state leaders to consider regarding the economy:

  • Speed — Return job-attached workers to their jobs quickly.
  • Targeted — Focus on hard-hit industries and locations.
  • Flexibility and uncertainty — Prepare for a range of scenarios.
  • Permanent benefit — Favor policy solutions that solve a problem now and create a lasting benefit.
  • Innovate — Find ways to innovate and, as Gochnour put it, "recover to better" than before.

The Utah Leads Together plan also recommends the state invest in novel educational programs — like certificates, one-year graduate programs and technical education — to help Utahns find new work if desired. It suggests investment in construction projects that could employ Utahns while addressing state infrastructure needs.

The plan names 10 "strategic investment options" where the state could focus its funds for short-term and long-term benefit, including outdoor recreation, agriculture and food, air quality, affordable housing, and a "moonshot" at Point of the Mountain, where many tech companies are based, "by anchoring it with a research institution that can solve the state's unique challenges (like air quality) and build capacity and strategic advantages in emerging sectors."

"Sometimes when you think you're at the end of something, you're actually at the beginning of something else," Gochnour said, quoting Fred Rogers of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." "And I would just say that the economic response team believes we're at the beginning of something new and better for our state."

Return to school

One notable page of the Utah Leads Together 3.0 document addresses Utah's public education system and its status for the fall — a key question for many parents in the state. The document says the state "has plans to physically bring students in kindergarten through post-secondary education safely back to school in fall 2020."

"Depending on the evolving situation regarding the pandemic," it says, "there may be waves of stopping and starting, partial or staggered openings, other scheduling adjustments such as earlier or later start dates and times, or other developments determined by local health departments, population vulnerability, and more."

It says public education leaders are working with local health departments to develop guidelines for the return. The Utah System of Higher Education — which includes institutions like the University of Utah, Utah State University, Weber State University, Utah Valley University, Dixie State University, Southern Utah University, Snow College, Salt Lake Community College and more — formed a task force to hash out how to bring students back to campus safely this fall.

Measures will include expanded contact tracing and proactive testing, it says.

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Graham Dudley reports on politics, breaking news and more for KSL.com. A native Texan, Graham's work has previously appeared in the Brownwood (Texas) Bulletin and The Oklahoma Daily.

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