Democratic candidate for governor Chris Peterson on Monday called for substantial revisions to Utah’s coronavirus pandemic response.
In remarks prepared for a press conference, Peterson said Utah saw 1,387 new cases reported on Sunday-the second highest number on record. Over the past week, Utah has had an average of 1,000 cases per day, an increase of 19% from the average two weeks earlier. Utah’s rolling seven-day average is now double Governor Herbert’s September 1st goal of 500 cases per day. And Utah has a 14.1% positivity rate in coronavirus testing. Public health experts estimate that a positive rate of testing below 3% is necessary for progress toward a suppression level. COVID cases are now up throughout most of rural Utah as well as the Wasatch front. Box Elder, Cache, Garfield, Iron, Juab, Kane, Millard, San Juan, Wasatch, and Washington counties all have per capita infection rates of over 1,000 per 100,000 people. Morgan, Piute, Rich, and Sanpete counties each have over 700 cases per 100,000 people.
“The United States has had the most chaotic and ineffective coronavirus response of any industrialized nation. And now Utah is unequivocally one of the worst hotspots for COVID in America,” said Peterson. “After eight months of ineffective leadership, it is time for the public to recognize that the current administration is failing in its response to the pandemic.”
Peterson called for a reset in Utah COVID policy in three areas: protecting public health, protecting public schools, and protecting public funds.
Protecting Public Health
Peterson discussed an eleven-step plan to restore public health to the state of Utah. This plan includes the following steps:
* Step One: Ensure that control of the pandemic is in the hands of health officials and decisions are being made based on the best public health and medical science.
* Step Two: Impose a temporary statewide mask requirement where physical separation is not possible.
* Step Three: Create and implement a more aggressive statewide educational campaign in partnership with community leaders on mask-wearing, maintaining physical distance, avoiding crowded situations inside and outside, and limiting interactions outside of households. The educational campaign should also include messaging on compliance with contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation recommendations of public health officials.
* Step Four: Allow local jurisdictions to institute stronger (but not weaker) non-pharmaceutical interventions at the discretion of the local health official.
* Step Five: Maximize testing capacity (goal 1.5 tests/1000 population/day), including screening (antigen tests with high sensitivity) and diagnostic (PCR, high specificity) tests. Establish a concrete plan for testing turnaround time of all test results within no more than 24 hours. Point of Care screening tests should be provided immediately.
* Step Six: Establish a plan to ensure adequate contact tracing ability including a minimum of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people. Additionally, the state must ensure sufficient case managers, care resource coordinators, and community health workers to facilitate population level ability to quarantine or isolate. This must include resources for public health staff to address immediate needs of Utahns who need to quarantine or isolate including assisting these households with health care, food, transportation, communication, etc. The state’s contact tracing plan must include a plan to meet the basic needs of individuals under mandatory quarantine or isolation requirements.
* Step Seven: Implement a statewide plan to work with the business community to ensure appropriate PPE (N95 respirator masks, gloves, gowns, eye protection) for high-risk frontline workers who are in contact with the public. Examples include workers in manufacturing and meatpacking plants, educators in school settings, individuals who are incarcerated and staff in those facilities, farm workers living in crowded housing, and grocery store, pharmacy workers, and food services workers who interact closely with each other and the public indoors on a regular basis.
* Step Eight: Conduct a transparent audit on the state’s coronavirus website to ensure the public has up-to-date and truly transparent information on the ongoing crisis.
* Step Nine: Facilitate compliance with public health orders through financial mechanisms for businesses and individuals including a plan to temporarily expand Medicaid coverage of all COVID-related care to any Utahn without insurance.
* Step Ten: Conduct a joint agency audit in cooperation with the Department of Health, local health departments, and public school officials on public school district coronavirus management plans. Implement a statewide plan to ensure all public school districts have satisfactory coronavirus management plans including adequate PPE and clear and enforceable standards on “circuit breaker” closures, hybrid instruction, online education, and testing. Establish a clearer state minimum safety level that preserves flexibility for local jurisdictions to institute stronger (but not weaker) coronavirus management.
* Step Eleven: Create and enforce clear compliance guidelines for high-risk activities including bars, eat-in restaurants, and gatherings of over 20 people in jurisdictions with high incidence rates.
“Our current COVID response is a failure. If I am elected governor, I will protect Utahns and their businesses from the coronavirus,” said Peterson.
Protecting Taxpayer Funds
Last week the Utah State Auditor released a preliminary audit finding serious lapses in the Herbert/Cox administration’s stewardship of taxpayer funds. The audit report found that Utah’s pandemic preparation “was not reasonably sufficient” and that an “unclear chain of command hindered” early response to the pandemic.
The Auditor’s report also noted that the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget initiated controversial purchases and no-bid contracts. According to the Auditor these contracts were “steered” to certain vendors associated with Silicon Slopes in a way that “heightens risk.” The Auditor’s report also specifically states that “the governor and lieutenant governor had a relatively close relationship with [Silicon Slopes] and various of its member companies,” that received the contracts in question. “This causes particular concerns when contracts are steered to those companies, especially at the approval of the governor.”
“I have spent my entire career fighting for hard working Americans to ensure they are treated fairly in the workplace, marketplace, and now in their relationship with government,” said Peterson. “It is unacceptable for the government to waste taxpayer resources without accountability. Utahns have the right to expect their money is spent wisely and solely in the public interest. The Utah Auditor’s report on the state’s coronavirus response raises troubling concerns over potential steering of lucrative government contracts to the friends and supporters of the governor and Lt. Governor.”
I am especially concerned that the state is still, today, paying fees for a cell phone contact tracing software that does not work. Every day taxpayers are paying $10,000 to friends of the governor and lt. governor with no plan to stop the bleeding.”
Peterson called on the state authorities to take three further steps to address concerns over mismanagement of taxpayer funds.
* Step One: Initiate a civil investigation in the Attorney General’s office to determine what taxpayer refunds may be lawfully recovered and immediately identify basis for terminating payments on the state’s failed contact tracing software. This civil investigation should follow all the facts wherever they lead and include any appropriate follow-up steps to ensure transparency and accountability for the use of taxpayer funds.
* Step Two: The State Legislature’s internal auditors and the Legislature itself should initiate an open review of the state’s coronavirus response including all documents, emails, purchasing records, and interviews with the individuals involved.
* Step Three: Lt. Governor Cox should voluntarily release an enhanced conflict of interest disclosure of all political campaign contributions made by individuals and/or companies who could have financially benefited from the state’s coronavirus related expenditure of taxpayer funds. This disclosure should include the amount, date, identity, and nature of each contribution from any individual or company.
“The Herbert-Cox administration’s stewardship of taxpayer resources is unacceptable. If I am elected governor, I will do everything in my power to protect taxpayer funds with integrity and transparency,” said Peterson.