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What will it take to go 'green' for COVID-19? State health officials brief the Utah legislature

Posted at 4:27 PM, Jun 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-17 00:04:06-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Appearing on a video conferencing app over a chart showing the escalating cases of COVID-19, leaders of Utah's Department of Health updated state lawmakers on the response to the pandemic.

"We’re currently in the acceleration phase of this outbreak," said Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist.

Hospital capacity has not been exceeded, but it is climbing now. So are the cases as restrictions were loosened. Dr. Dunn said Utah's Department of Health was now focusing on worksites, which now account for 78% of the coronavirus cases. They are also focusing on high risk and vulnerable populations, including targeted care at long-term care facilities.

State health officials are concerned about what happens this fall, when COVID-19 and the flu season overlap.

During the presentation on Tuesday, lawmakers appeared to be very conflicted in what has happened and what should happen next as Utah deals with COVID-19.

"We’ve talked for weeks, months about flattening the curve. I don’t see any flattening yet," said House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City.

But Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, believed the state should loosen restrictions further, citing the economic fallout from the pandemic.

"I think we need to be green. I think we should have been green a long time ago, but protect the vulnerable," he said.

Major General Jefferson Burton, the acting director of Utah's Department of Health, said balancing economics, politics and public health is "a real challenge." He testified that cities and counties were pressuring state health officials to move to lower risk levels and open things up. But he also said people were still not following health recommendations for physical distancing and wearing face coverings.

"We have got to get our public on board with participating in those two things or we’re going to have a rough time going forward," Gen. Burton testified. "Or we may have to back things off, which nobody wants to do."

Rep. Ray Ward, R-Bountiful, asked Dr. Dunn what it would take to move to green? She replied that they needed the capacity to trace every single case and test everyone who needs a test.

"You also want to see a drop in your cases for 14 days," Dr. Dunn said.

Lawmakers also quizzed state health officials about the controversial TestUtah.com site, which has faced scrutiny (and now a lawsuit) over its accuracy. UDOH Deputy Director Nate Checketts said they extended a multi-million dollar contract for another 45 days. However, the agency has also opened up future contracts to the public bid process.

Overall, lawmakers praised Dr. Dunn and other employees at UDOH for their work in battling the pandemic.

"We appreciate your openness and transparency," Committee Chair Brad Daw, R-Orem, said. "You're doing a very good and tough job."

The hearing was a part of several days of legislative committees who are planning bills related to the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of a special session at the end of this week that Governor Gary Herbert has called. Lawmakers will primarily deal with the budget and economic fallout -- but will address 26 topics ranging from pandemic response to police brutality.

Also on Tuesday, lawmakers discussed expanding lawsuit immunity for businesses that might expose someone to the virus. The Interim Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee debated a bill that would allow first responders to seek a warrant to force a COVID-19 test on someone who intentionally coughs on them.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said they have had instances where officers have been coughed on and the person claimed to have coronavirus.

But lawmakers were skeptical about whether any officers were actually infected and pushed back on the idea of criminalizing someone intentionally coughing.

"I must say I have a big concern about this," said Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City.

Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan, said she was uncomfortable with making it a misdemeanor crime, although current law criminalizes throwing bodily fluids on first responders.

"This goes into a whole new territory that we haven’t been in. That is a body function that is largely involuntary," said Rep. Coleman.

The bill's sponsors, Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, and Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, argued that it was an expansion of existing law and first responders needed that protection.

Ultimately, the committee voted to advance the bill -- but stripped out language criminalizing a cough so negotiations could continue before Thursday's special session.

"If you’re trying to cause problems with the function of first responders, it’s not cool. It’s not OK," said Rep. Hutchings. "Is the language right? Probably not."