Coronavirus 01

A state representative wants to allocate $14 million to $16 million now in preparation for a possible coronavirus outbreak in Utah.

Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, co-chair of the Social Services budget committee, says he also wants to set up a special, ongoing, “pandemic” fund out of which would be allocated these monies, the vast majority of which would go to local county health departments to fight the rapidly spreading disease.

“I’m meeting with the governor today,” Ray told UtahPolicy.com. “And I plan to open a bill file” to set up the special, ongoing fund.

The coronavirus has not been determined a pandemic by federal health officials, but many experts say that may well come as the virus is now in several states, the infection rates climbing, and two deaths reported as of Monday.

If all of the money is not needed this year, it would just stay in the fund, and gather interest, growing each year so when a serious pandemic does come to the state -- and experts say it will, if not the coronavirus then another -- Utah will be better ready for it.

The state has hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus monies this year, including one-time funds -- that Ray would use -- and ongoing revenues.

However, by far most of that is earmarked for public and higher education -- not local health departments. There is around $100 million in general fund one-time funds, which might be used for the fund if legislators agree.

House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, says the money for the coronavirus response could be part of a “working rainy day fund” that legislative leaders are considering creating this year that would use ongoing extra sales tax money for a one-time expense.

“We do feel like we could free up some of that money for this kind of one-time expense,” he said Monday morning.

Ray says he worked with state officials when the H1N1 virus came over a decade ago. It turned out not to be a pandemic, and the state didn’t have to act as such. But many of the same measures could be taken with coronavirus.

“We set up distribution protocols” for helping the first responders first, then distribution lists, quarantines and such.

Ray’s millions would go to various readiness actions, including buying and distributing respirators which may actually stop the inhaling of the virus, education of citizens and such. It would not go to setting up special, large hospital-like quarantine buildings and staffing them, said Ray. Those costs, if needed, would be additional to what he is planning.

One last item: Ray says he’s checking to make sure a special law, which would allow the Legislature to meet electronically and remoting from the Capitol, is still in place.

Thousands of citizens flock to the Capitol each weekday while the Legislature is in session, attending packed committee meetings and taking tours through the Senate and House galleries with lawmakers sitting below them in their chambers.

The Legislature adjourns at midnight a week from Thursday.