Utah is NOT going back to normal May 1st. Here’s why.

Let’s talk about where we are right now in our fight against COVID-19 in Utah. Despite some high profile protests by a vocal minority, most of the state’s residents have been practicing social distancing and following the Stay Home, Stay Safe directive for the last approximately 6 weeks now. Even though it has been hard, we have made a big difference in our state’s epidemiologic curve. We are saving lives.

The graph below is visual evidence that Utah’s mitigation efforts have been effective in reducing the spread of the virus. “Real time reproductive number” means how many other people one person with the virus infects.

When this number is held under one, it’s like holding the head of the virus under water. It will continue to diminish. As long as the number is above 1, it will continue to spread.

That number has been steadily decreasing in Utah up until about 2 weeks ago. After that we’ve had a small increase up to 1.3 on 4/29, likely due to “mitigation fatigue.”

The characteristics of the virus have not changed to make it intrinsically less or more contagious over time. The difference is the environment we have provided for the virus to either flourish or not flourish.

The graph below of new cases per day up until 4/27/20 has an important caveat- tests take several days to run, and so the last few days are always going to look really good because the blue line hasn’t been filled in yet.

The rate of new positives each day has been fairly consistent from day to day rather than fueling an exponential acceleration. Which gives us a picture of total number of cases that is gradually rising like the rolling hills of Tennessee rather than the cragged peaks of the Tetons. I also love that the green bars are becoming a larger percentage of the total!

We have fortunately been well poised to quickly ramp up our ability to test, which many states have struggled to do. Ideally we would be able to test everyone in the state of Utah periodically and quarantine only those who are positive, but we are far from realizing that. But still, to manage to test ~6,000 per day is pretty good compared to a lot of states. So far our rate of positive tests has been stable around 5% of all tests as seen below.

This is important because positive tests are only the tip of the iceberg of disease. People who can’t get tested are the part of the iceberg that’s under water. The more tests we do, the less water there is to hide the true extent of the disease. If our testing rate is relatively low, it may be an indication that we are testing enough to visualize a good portion of the iceberg. New York, in contrast has had a ~30% positive rate. It helped that we started testing much earlier in our curve than they did.

These indicators show us that, at least in our state, COVID-19 has, for now, become a controlled burn rather than a raging forest fire. But like any fire, if it is given more fuel, it can quickly spread. Just as forests are destroyed by a single match, as long as there is one case of COVID-19 in our population, we need to take precautions.

So is it safe to begin lifting restrictions?

Well, we know that shuttering businesses and having everyone stay home are temporary, non-sustainable measures with many economic and social side effects. Understandably we want to roll back these measures as soon and as quickly as it is safe to do so. But we need to understand that the point of those interventions is to buy time– time to ramp up testing like our state has done, put in place workers and a system to trace contacts of positive cases and educate the public. Time to secure supplies of PPE, ventilators, expand hospital capabilities. Time to learn about the virus and find a treatment and/or vaccine. So far we’ve accomplished some of those things.

Are we ready to get back to normal? Absolutely not. Are we ready to cautiously and gradually begin easing some restrictions? It depends on how good we are at wearing masks, social distancing, avoid large groups and washing our hands and follow guidance from the Utah Department of Health, the CDC and our state and national epidemiologists.

Social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands frequently, etc are going to be with us for a while, for at least the next 6 months or longer, until this virus either becomes seasonal, or we develop a vaccine and eradicate it like we have other diseases.

It’s ironic that many of those who have been the most vocal about protesting restrictions are also the most lax about following social distancing, wearing masks, etc. The irony is that those very things are crucial to being able to open the economy safely. Are you worried about the economy? Then wear a mask, back up, and above all, wash your hands so that you and other workers can stay safe! There has been a lot of talk about “rights,” but in my opinion we also need to talk about “responsibilities.” What do Utahns need to be doing right now and in the future to protect ourselves and our communities?

  1. Continue to take this seriously.
  2. Follow the recommendations from our governor and healthcare system that are being made in coordination with the CDC. Check out the state’s COVID-19 response plan here.
  3. Wash hands, clean high touch surfaces in our houses (phones!), wear a mask in public, stay 6 feet away from people in public, limit unnecessary outings and travel, etc. See the details below.
  4. Download the Health Together UT app and use it to track your symptoms and determine whether and where you should be tested. You can also enable the app’s Bluetooth function to notify you if have been near someone else who has tested positive. Click here to download the app.
  5. If you are sick or tested for COVID-19, stay home in quarantine until you are cleared by a medical professional. If you are positive, state workers will work to trace every contact you had and get them tested. Don’t be “that person” who knowingly exposes everyone.

This table is from the governor’s office and spells out in clear specific terms the kinds of things we all need to be doing. Right now the state of Utah is still classified as being in the Red “High Risk” category. Tentatively, we are looking at a possible downgrade to the Orange “Moderate Risk” category May 1, so you can see where we should be, and where we might be headed.

Notice there are only minor differences between Orange and Red. In both categories, you wear a face mask in public and stay 6 feet apart. In both categories, you limit nonessential travel and stay home as much as possible, and limit gatherings to household members only. In Orange you dine in only with extreme caution, and only in Orange do you congregate with others outside of your immediate household.

What about gyms? Here what the state’s guidelines state for gyms and fitness centers:

If your gym is open right now, they are putting the community at risk. If they open after May 1 but do not following these guidelines, they are putting you at risk.

What about community events like concerts, plays, recitals, sporting events, etc? See the state’s directives:

If your dance recital, sporting event etc is not following these guidelines, they are putting you at risk. If they aren’t clear in telling you what they are going to do when you show up to keep you safe, I would assume they aren’t going to do it.

What about outdoor recreation? Judging from the reports I’ve heard from Sand Hollow and other crowded recreational areas, it is all but impossible to stick to the following directives:

Please keep the above directives in mind as you consider how hard you are willing to work to keep you and your family and your community safe. If you aren’t willing to take precautions for your benefit, do it for your family, your grandparents, and your fellow humans at Ace Hardware. Do it for our economy. Do it for America.