Utah ready to move to 'steady state' in COVID response, governor says

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said on Friday that it is now time to transition from an emergency COVID-19 response to a "steady state" after Utah is now in a "much better place."

Cox said he expects the state to transition its many COVID-19 responses from the Utah Department of Health to the health care system by the end of March.

"Let me be clear that this is not the end of COVID, but it is ... the beginning of treating COVID as we do other seasonal respiratory viruses," he said.

Utah will alter its emergency response and transition to what he called a manageable risk model. This includes having the state health care system monitor outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths, which he said will undoubtedly continue to happen.

"It's time for our state's response to the pandemic to make the appropriate shift to match where we are today. It's time to adapt. All of the key metrics are moving in the right direction," Cox said.

He said that the different response from the state is a good change, and will allow the public health care system to focus on things it would do normally, including disease surveillance, data collection, public awareness and vaccinations for COVID-19 and other diseases.

COVID-19 case reports and statistics from the Utah Department of Health are going to be published weekly, instead of daily, and health officials will continue to watch trends and will have the ability to ramp up response quickly if needed.

He said that each Utahn will need to decide what the new model means for them and whether they will wear a mask, taking into account whether they are vaccinated and their own personal risk. Cox encouraged Utahns to not mock anyone wearing a mask, but give them love and support and realize they may live with someone who is immunocompromised or be immunocompromised themselves.

He said that while it may have been true a year ago that others should protect you from COVID-19 by the steps they take, it is no longer true today with the wide availability of tests, vaccines and medications.

We have all of those tools, and so I completely reject this false notion that every single person in the world has to wear a mask and has to socially distance for the rest of our lives to protect people, because it's just not true.

–Utah Gov. Spencer Cox

"We have all of those tools, and so I completely reject this false notion that every single person in the world has to wear a mask and has to socially distance for the rest of our lives to protect people, because it's just not true," Cox said.

He said he has two siblings who are immunocompromised, and even before COVID-19, his sister wore an N95 mask every winter.

"We all need to be OK with those personal decisions that people are making," Cox said.

Kathy Willets, spokeswoman for University of Utah Health, issued a statement Friday encouraging Utahns to continue to wear masks in public.

"Though case counts are declining, COVID-19 continues to strain our resources as a hospital system. We ask the public to continue to mask, vaccinate, and practice social distancing as we work vigilantly to provide care to our community," she said.

The governor also said that he hopes some positive things come from the pandemic, including that when someone is sick, they stay home when they can or consider wearing a mask if they can't stay home. He called those actions signs of "professional courtesy, common sense, responsibility and kindness."

"There's almost nothing in our daily lives that hasn't experienced at least some sort of change over the past two years, but we've also come a long way, and today we're in a much different place than we were two years ago – a much better place," Cox said.

The governor said that Utah is "not spiking the football" with this change and that other states are making similar changes and more states will be following.

He said that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been "a disaster through all of this," noting that the United States was behind on testing at the beginning of the pandemic and that states have led, and relied more on data from other countries.

In addition to making changes in the government, Cox said he hopes that private businesses and organizations will reconsider some of the restrictions they have in place.

Masks in church

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also announced on Friday that it is changing its COVID-19 response as governments around the world are doing the same.

"We are grateful that the Lord has heard the prayers of so many and provided the direction that has allowed us to navigate the global COVID-19 pandemic which, in some areas of the world, continues," a letter from the church's First Presidency said.

Area presidencies will be encouraged, under the new guidance, to consider advice from local government and health officials, as well as local customs and conditions, to determine whether masks should be worn and what other precautions should be taken.

Masks will still be required in temples, according to Friday's announcement, because many people who attend temples are elderly and more vulnerable. This is part of an effort to keep temples open and have as many people as possible participating.

Brigham Young University announced on Friday that it is removing its requirement that individuals attending events prove they are vaccinated or have a negative COVID-19 test result. It is still asking people to wear masks in classrooms and when they are not able to maintain distance from each other.


Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said the state will continue to get vaccines to as many people as possible, including children under 5 as soon as they are authorized.

"Vaccines have been and will continue to be the surest way to keep us out of this pandemic, to move us into a more steady state," Henderson said.

The lieutenant governor said 79% of providers who give vaccines to children are ready to offer COVID-19 vaccines to younger children when they get the chance. Vaccines will be another function where the state takes a more limited role.

She noted that she still contracted COVID-19 even while fully vaccinated, but said that because she had the vaccine she was kept out of the hospital and is doing better than after her first COVID-19 case in 2020. She reiterated that vaccines help protect from severe disease.

Henderson also encouraged boosters and said the data shows that people with a booster vaccine have more protection against COVID-19.

"These tools that we have at our disposal do not work if they are not used," she said.

Nearly 5 million doses of vaccines have been administered in Utah, and 68.7% of Utahns have received at least one dose. Henderson said that the state is proud of the vaccinations that have been given to multicultural communities.

"Vaccines have served us very well and will continue to do so, not only to limit the disease but also to reduce severe outcomes," she said.

Health department moves forward

Nate Checketts, executive director at the Utah Department of Health, said public health will still have a role in the COVID-19 response, particularly in working with low-income populations, and the agency will be prepared to step up and provide additional testing and support if it is needed.

Doctors and health care systems will conduct testing where necessary, and the responsibility of COVID-19 testing for events or travel will be passed to private companies.

Checketts listed multiple COVID-19 testing sites that will be closing, as at-home tests are more readily available and there has been less demand for testing altogether. At-home tests are available through the federal government, health insurance companies for those with private insurance, and local pharmacies.

"We've closely monitored testing demand throughout the pandemic, and especially over the past several weeks. Many locations that used to test thousands of people a day are now testing fewer than 100," he said. "We have worked to ensure other testing options are available in the vicinity of each site we are closing. Additionally, contracts with testing partners will remain in place, which provides us the ability to re-open sites if the situation warrants."

Testing is still recommended for anyone who would benefit from treatment that would be available with a positive COVID-19 test, as well as for the elderly, anyone with high-risk conditions, and people who work with or visit vulnerable individuals.

"As we ramp down, and as we move into the steady state, the state is not stepping completely back from this. We will be prepared, if needed, to ramp back up," Checketts said.

Utah epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said that everyone should change how they think about and look at COVID-19.

Health department websites will be changing to focus on longer-term trends, rather than the day-to-day statistics.

Even without the daily data, Nolen said the department has a good idea of what is happening with COVID-19 as health officials continue to watch wastewater surveillance, genome sequencing, what is happening around the world, emergency room and clinic visits, hospitalizations and deaths.

"We're going to continue to have a really good idea of what's happening in the state so we can understand where we are and what we need to adjust," Nolen said.

Cox said that Utah has helped show the rest of the nation that hospitalizations and wastewater testing work to indicate the spread of COVID-19. He said officials in Utah and other states have confidence in moving to this model and ending efforts to count cases.

"We have the ability now to make those decisions individually to protect ourselves, and to live happily ever after," Cox said.

Watch Friday's press conference on the current state of COVID-19 in Utah in its entirety by clicking on the play button below. Speakers include Gov. Spencer Cox, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Utah Department of Health officials.

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Emily Ashcraft joined KSL.com as a reporter in 2021. She covers courts and legal affairs, as well as health, faith and religion news.


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