SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah will begin winding down its emergency response to COVID-19 this week.
Governor Spencer Cox announced last month Utah will transition to a "steady state," with the emergency response no longer necessary as cases have plummeted. The Utah Department of Health on Monday announced a series of mass testing sites will start closing and it will direct people to private testing facilities and home testing. When FOX 13 News visited some of the state's mass testing sites, there was no one in line — underscoring the lack of demand.
"I think this is a good time to move towards this lower, steady state. We are in a lull in Utah, this is an amazing time," said state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen. "We have very few cases, so it is reasonable to pull back."
Since COVID-19 first arrived in the state two years ago, the Utah Department of Health has documented 927,551 positive cases. As of Monday, 4,706 people have died. Across the state, COVID-19 transmission is now low. Only Summit County was listed in "moderate" transmission for the virus.
"With the level of immunity in our community, we think we should be very well protected unless there is a big change," Dr. Nolen said in an interview with FOX 13 News on Monday, referring to vaccinated Utahns and those who have recovered from the novel coronavirus.
Still, Dr. Nolen said she was watching for any surges in the virus. The BA2 variant accounts for nearly 35% of Utah's current cases, she said, but it was not causing a surge in hospitalizations like other places. Dr. Nolen urged more Utahns to get vaccinated and to get their boosters.
"We really want people to go get their booster and that’s because we can see it has a huge impact," she said.
Moving forward, Dr. Nolen said people will need to make choices about the level of risk they want to assume.
"I think right now, for people who are vaccinated, the risk is exceptionally low. So therefore, it’s reasonable to go do things in society and have good community interactions," she said. "If somebody feels they want to still wear a mask in those situations? That’s their choice. I think that’s totally reasonable."
The Utah State Legislature eliminated mask mandates earlier this year, overturning local government orders in the surge of the omicron variant. While conditions now are much better, some medical groups remain concerned.
"With the decreasing case counts we understand the desire by the state to reduce the number of COVID testing sites. However, our primary concern is for those still at risk and we hope this decrease does not become an undue burden for those seeking testing or unavailable to those unable to afford private testing. If case counts grow, as is possible with future variants, we will encourage the Department of Health to reevaluate testing options," said Maryann Martindale, the executive director of the Utah Academy of Family Physicians.
"COVID-19 is still a very dangerous and life-threatening virus that can have serious long-term effects and we want to stress the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted, of maintaining social distancing when possible, and wearing masks when inside crowded areas."
If Utah sees a surge in cases, Dr. Nolen said they can turn around and ramp up again.
"I think we should expect we are going to have an increase in cases, but I think at the same time we know what we need to do," she said. "And we don’t need the same approach we’ve had during the other waves of the pandemic. We can do this with a different approach."
Gov. Cox's office will keep some contracts open, just in case.
"Where it makes sense to deactivate, those will be deactivated but in place. So in the event we get another surge, you just flip the switch," said Sophia DiCaro, the executive director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.
The pandemic has been a massive undertaking for state government. Under spending logs provided to FOX 13 News, the state has spent $30.4 billion as of March on COVID-19 response. That covers everything from personal protective equipment to economic stimulus and emergency needs.
As it stands now, COVID-19 is the single largest expenditure of taxpayer dollars the state of Utah has made. The money spent over the past two years is more than the state budget itself — $26 billion.
"It’s truly unprecedented," DiCaro said.
The bulk of the expenditures are covered by the federal government under COVID stimulus spending. Utah has fared better than other states in the pandemic with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and a lowest cumulative fatality rate.
"So far, I think it’s been money well spent," DiCaro said. "As it’s been allocated, I think Utah’s been pretty prudent in how the state has handled it."