SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Gary Herbert said Utah is in the midst of "its largest surge of coronavirus yet" as new COVID-19 cases continued to top 1,000 and hospitals continued to report being overwhelmed.
The governor made his remarks during a virtual appearance before the Utah Economic and Energy Summit. The event, which was going to draw hundreds to the Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, was moved to online-only over the weekend as coronavirus cases surged.
"Perhaps it’s only fitting that I’m joining with you today virtually. What could be more 2020?" he told attendees who were all on a virtual conference call.
The governor told the crowd the dire news.
"Unfortunately, our state is experiencing its largest surge of coronavirus yet," he said. "We have now had over 100,000 cases of the virus in the state of Utah and our hospitals are on the verge of being unable to accommodate the demand for quality care for those who need it. These are very sobering times. There are very frustrating times. We just need to exercise caution and make sacrifices we’d rather not make to slow the spread of COVID-19."
Across Utah, health care systems are reported feeling overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases. It has begun discussions among Gov. Herbert's COVID-19 Unified Command about the next steps, which include overflow hospital space and rationing care. The Utah Hospital Association briefed the command last week on it.
Meanwhile the Unified Command has been discussing a wide variety of options including how best to communicate the new risk and restriction levels to the public and how to get them to comply with public health orders that now oversee everything.
"We’re really trying to have a consensus with how we move forward across the state with any plans, with any restrictions and the rules we have in place right now," said Joe Dougherty, a spokesman for Utah's Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state's COVID-19 response with the state health department. "Most people are not aware the transmission index that we have in place right now was implemented by public health order. And disobeying a public health order comes with a Class B misdemeanor. Now whether that gets enforced is going to be a discussion at the local level."
That includes a mask requirement for all public spaces in the 21 counties at the highest level of the state's scale. Restaurants and businesses must mandate face coverings and physical distancing. Gatherings among family and friends are also limited to less than 10 people in a "high transmission county."
But Dougherty said that while they are exploring whether any additional restrictions may be necessary, the COVID-19 Unified Command is not contemplating closing businesses or shutdowns similar to what the state did in March when the pandemic first arrived.
"Currently, we don’t have any discussions about major shutdowns because we want to see is this transmission index, is it going to work? And we have to give it time," Dougherty said. "So it’s so hard to be patient right now, to see in the middle of a spike are we going to see things turn around? We believe it’s possible but it requires everybody’s investment in this. Realize that rampant spread of this virus will lead to overwhelming our hospital system. We’re getting dangerously close to that."
In his remarks to the summit, the governor said "we know how to weather storms" and praised businesses for their efforts to keep customers healthy. He noted the balance of lives and livelihoods and said Utah has done well economically. In fact, he said, there are more people in the workforce than pre-pandemic.
"We will rise from the current public health and economic crisis by following those same sound principles, by working together," he said. "By wearing masks by socially distancing and staying home while sick and exposed to the coronavirus. We can, in fact, win this contest against COVID-19 and our businesses will continue to innovate."