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SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to handling any future COVID-19 surges in Utah, Gov. Spencer Cox's new "steady state" plan will likely look a lot like the old plan, with the Utah Department of Health providing testing, treatment and monitoring but not mandating masks or other measures.
"We've really focused in, as we've talked about 'steady state," and ramping up, about the tools that we have been using to respond, related to testing, surveillance, supporting the hospitals, case investigation. We're preparing a plan that will allow us to reimplement those tools," the department's executive director, Nate Checketts said.
Additional tools the state could use in another outbreak have been limited by the Utah Legislature, which ended a statewide mask mandate nearly a year ago and made it more difficult for both state and local authorities to impose public health restrictions.
State lawmakers now can overturn declarations of public health emergencies and mandates, a power they exercised in January by voting to toss out mask mandates in both Salt Lake and Summit counties at the height of the latest record-breaking surge driven by the incredibly transmissible omicron variant.
Checketts declined to weigh in on whether the law should be changed to give the executive branch more authority to respond quickly to a COVID-19 crisis, saying it already "allows the department to take action and then it's up to the Legislature to decide what actions they want to take in response."
Details of the plan expected to be in place before March 31 are still being worked out, he said, including what would have to happen for the state to reverse the efforts already underway to largely shift testing and treatment for the virus to private health care systems and end daily reports on its impact.
There probably won't be a single trigger but some sort of combination of factors, Checketts said, that would include an increased presence of the virus in wastewater samples, upticks in urgent care and emergency room visits for COVID-19 symptoms, and new variants, such as so-called "stealth" omicron.
Meanwhile, the state is hanging on to contracts with private testing companies in case they're needed, he said.
Checketts said he's hopeful Utahns have enough immunity against the virus from vaccinations as well as infections to "dampen or soften any future surges or waves," but suggested the surge that swiftly followed Utah's first omicron case last December may not be the last.
"I don't rule that out. That's part of the reason we want to have our preparations in place," he said, adding the intent of last Friday's announcement by the governor "was to signal the direction we were headed and to let the public know we were making these plans."
Timing the move from a pandemic to endemic response
But Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, questioned the impact of Cox calling a news conference to say that Utah is moving away from a pandemic response, given how much is yet to be spelled out.
"There was absolutely zero specifics," Kim said after listening to the announcement. "I'm not sure what was accomplished, other than maybe just a PR move to let people know."
Kim said more detailed plans have been put in place in other states like California that allow for governors to reimpose mask mandates and other mitigation measures should cases spike again. But in Utah, he said lawmakers basically took over much of the state's response to COVID-19 to push back against mandates.
Another question Kim raised is whether Utah's governor is moving too quickly.
Utah's COVID-19 cases are dropping sharply from numbers some three times the previous record, in part because Cox discouraged most Utahns from getting tested for the virus in mid-January because state sites couldn't keep up with the demand. Now, the lines are gone and many of those testing sites are being shut down.
University of Utah Health officials pointed out on Tuesday that COVID-19 cases in the state are still high compared to previous peaks, including from the delta variant last fall that made Utah and other Intermountain West states the nation's hot spot for the virus.
Kim said there's no guarantee the downward trend continues.
"They're saying it's going to keep going lower. I don't know. It might. It might not. We don't know what a steady state of omicron looks like because we've never had it before," he said. What makes him uncomfortable is that even though the governor stressed COVID-19 isn't going away, that's how Utahns are going to react.
"Overall, the tone makes it harder to ramp back up," Kim said.
While it's not realistic to expect Utahns to keep treating the virus the same, he said "it's really important to message and really emphasize that this may change. There's a huge level of uncertainty here and we need to be ready as a community to react to new variants or surges."
With options like mask mandates and vaccine requirements off the table in Utah, largely due to legislative opposition, Kim said it can be difficult to reassure the public that the state is poised to deal with what could be coming.
"Preparing folks now, right now, when things are going good, is better than dropping this all when things are going bad," the professor said, adding that "having specifics kind of emphasizes that we're ready for that and you all should be, too."
When will Utah get back to normal?
Checketts said the department is trying to message that because COVID-19 infections have "dropped significantly," the state's response is changing to treating the virus more like the flu or other endemic disease, where outbreaks are limited compared to a pandemic, even though hospitalizations and deaths still occur.
That also means leaving it up to Utahns to determine what, if any, precautions they need to take.
"We really hope that individuals will also look at this information and also decide for themselves if it's time for them to make changes in their behavior, too," he said. That was evident during Friday's news conference at the Utah Capitol, when Checketts said he and state epidemiologist Leisha Nolen were the only speakers wearing masks.
More than a third of Utahns polled for the Deseret News and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics before the news conference said it will still take a year or more for life to go back to normal from COVID-19. Just 9% say that will happen in the next two months; 33% in the next three to six months and 16% weren't sure.
The results are consistent with previous polls done in Utah throughout the pandemic. This poll was conducted Feb. 7-17 by Dan Jones & Associates of 808 registered voters in Utah and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.45 percentage points.
Laurie Healey, a Millcreek retiree who was in Disneyland on Thursday with her children and grandchildren, said she believes the world's economy is a major casualty of the pandemic as workers left their jobs and that it will take several years to recover.
Healey said the "steady state" plan from the governor doesn't change her timeline for a return to normal.
"I knew that it was going to eventually get to that state, where it was going to be something that we all had to just have to live with — we get our flu shots every year and now we'll have to get our COVID shots every year," she predicted. "That's just the way life is going to be."
Matthew Anderson, a member of the military serving at Hill Air Force Base expressing his personal opinions, said a return to normal is already overdue and may come more quickly as the world's attention turns to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"Given current situations going on in the world, I would say very soon. Maybe not maybe normal, but I think it's going to lighten up COVID restrictions. I think people are going to start refocusing their attention to more important things," Anderson said. "It's been getting dragged on longer than it needed to be for power."