SALT LAKE CITY — Utah will start winding down its COVID-19 response as virus cases decline dramatically and hospitalizations drop.
"It's now time to transition out of an emergency posture and into a more manageable risk model," Governor Spencer Cox said at a news conference on Friday.
FOX 13 News first reported on his plans to move the state to the "next phase" of COVID-19 on Friday morning, shifting away from an ongoing public health emergency. The plan, which will be in place by March 31, involves closing mass testing sites and turning testing over to health care providers. The state will cease providing daily updates for COVID-19, relying on trends instead and wastewater monitoring that the governor said was much more accurate in alerting them to any potential virus surges.
"Today we are in a much different place than two years ago," the governor said. "We are in a much better place."
The governor said the state will start to treat COVID-19 similar to other seasonal respiratory viruses. The difference being, at-home tests are available for COVID. He acknowledged it is closer to an "endemic" phase of the pandemic.
FOX 13 News previously reported the state has been preparing for the "endemic phase" of COVID-19. That's where the virus is a part of our daily lives, but is not overwhelming health care systems like it is now. The state's plan has called for 45 days of declining or plateauing COVID-19 cases before it is officially declared endemic.
Gov. Cox said Utah's "personal risk model" will rely on people to decide their own comfort and level of risk.
He warned unvaccinated Utahns to take it more seriously than those who have been vaccinated and boosted. The state will continue to push vaccinations and booster shots as a way of emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Please remember during the last two surges, hospitals were not filling up with vaccinated people, it was unvaccinated people," Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson said.
Masking will remain a personal choice and the governor called on Utahns to accept others' decisions.
"You’ll notice today there are several people in this room wearing masks. That’s OK. There are also people in this room not wearing masks. That is also OK and we all need to be OK with those personal decisions people are making," he said.
In an interview Friday with FOX 13 News, state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen said Utahns need to think about their own situation. She warned the virus was still circulating widely in the state, but vaccinations and boosters have reduced its impact.
"We have to start thinking about this like other infections. Flu is the easy example. If you have symptoms, you don’t go and expose other people," she said, urging people to stay home when sick and use at-home tests for COVID-19.
When it comes to masking and crowds, she said people should think about where they're going and their own personal risk.
"Personally? I am doing it where, when it’s not an inconvenience, I'm going to wear a mask. I don't care if I have a mask on in a grocery store or not, so I'll wear it. Where if I go to a restaurant? Obviously I want to mask off. So people can think about where is their risk level, what is appropriate and when to use a mask. Certainly crowds, why not use it?" Dr. Nolen said.
The Utah State Legislature is still advancing bills that are responding to COVID-19, but the governor's announcement may have taken the wind out of them. On Friday, Rep. Walt Brooks, R-St. George, called up his bill to block businesses and employers from requiring proof of vaccination. He spoke against such measures, calling it "show your papers wherever you go."
But Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, had the bill circled on the House floor. He said a substitute was coming and then referenced the tone of the debate saying: "This morning, I was threatened with being a pawn of the deep state."
Rep. Brooks resisted efforts to shut down debate on his bill. He lost, and it's now in limbo. Gov. Cox signaled on Friday he would like to see an end to all COVID-related bills in the legislature.
"I would love the legislature to be done with this, too. One of the ways to signal to Utahns we are done and moving on is not to run bills that are divisive," he said.
While political leaders are done with the virus, the virus may not be done with them.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, confirmed to FOX 13 News on Friday he has contracted a breakthrough infection of COVID-19.
"I encourage everyone to get vaccinated and boosted. It is not a close call in my book. We have developed vaccinations that dramatically lower the likelihood that COVID results in significant harm to people. The fact that I have a breakthrough infection does not make me think less of the need to get vaccinated," Rep. King said in a text message. "Being vaccinated and boosted has been shown to significantly reduce the severity of the symptoms. I’m very grateful for that. I believe that is why my symptoms are so mild."
Because of the transition, the following COVID-19 testing sites will close or have already closed:
- University of Utah - tailgate lot (final day for testing is February 18)
- Utah Valley University - (final day for testing is February 18)
- West Valley - Maverik Center (final day for testing is February 18)
- Hyrum - Hyrum Senior Center (final day for testing is February 18)
- Provo - BYU football stadium (final day for testing is February 20)
- Bluffdale - Bluffdale City Park (closed, final day for testing was February 15)
- Layton - Ellison Park (closed, final day for testing was February 14)