‘It was never about stopping a disease’; senator makes case for reducing coronavirus risk level

Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, discussing Senate Bill 121 before its final vote on the Senate floor, Salt Lake City, Utah, March 13, 2019 | File photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Utah senator who is the co-chairman of the state’s joint commission on the coronavirus pandemic told St. George News that the commission’s recommendation that the governor reduce the color risk level to the lowest green level is not meant to apply to the entire state.

Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, co-chairman of the Utah Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission. | File photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

However, Sen. Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, said there are areas of the state that should not move to the lowest risk level, and the recommendation is only for areas that have had few to no cases during the pandemic.

“It’s not, ‘hey just take all the take all the barriers down and we’re good to go.’ It’s actually go green where the data indicates you can go green,” Hemmert, said. “What’s cool about the plan is it can be applied to you geographically. It doesn’t have to be a one size fits all approach and the targeted it can be strategic and tactical, and that’s actually what the commission recommended.”

On Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert will issue a decision as to whether Utah will continue in the yellow risk level that has been in place since May 16. The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, of which Hemmert is co-chair with retired Utah National Guard Maj. Gen. Jefferson Burton, recommended moving most of Utah to the lowest green risk level, while the Utah Department of Health has recommended no reduction of risk level for any jurisdictions. 

Both Southern Utah and the state are presently going through a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations and cases, which continued Thursday as both Southern Utah and the state had their second-largest one-day increase in cases.  

Hemmert, who serves as majority whip in the Senate, would not commit as to whether Southern Utah or parts of Southern Utah would be included among the jurisdictions he didn’t think should go green. 

“That’s where we would defer to that the public health department director for that area,” Hemmert said. “I think that should actually be something that is between the local elected officials and your local health department. They should make that determination but it should be done on the data.”

Infographic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Illustration of virus by Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash, St. George News

Dr. David Blodgett, director of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department, did not respond to a request for comment concerning the local department’s stance on whether the area should move toward a reduced risk level.

David Heaton, spokesperson for the department, told St. George News they have not heard any decisions yet about if and how the committee’s recommendation will be implemented.

“Our health department is prepared to work with any changes made in COVID-19 guidelines,” Heaton said. 

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, spoke before the St. George City Council during its meeting Thursday night to provide an update on the hospital’s status. While he started his presentation saying he was not there to give any recommendations, he did advise that any move made needs to keep both the public health and the economy in hand. He said, however, that any move will be contingent on the public taking the responsibility to do what they can to prevent the spread of the virus through social distancing and face coverings. 

Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of Dixie Regional Medical Center, seen during a Zoom teleconference with reporters on May 28, 2020. | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

“We’ve had to decide if we keep COVID under control or help the economy, but that is a false choice. We’re a smart community and we can do both,” Carroll told the council. “As we do a good job with social distancing and wearing masks, that gives us our best chance of doing both. I hope we can do this not because we have to, but because we are doing the right thing.”

Dr. Bryce Ferguson, director of the intensive care unit at Dixie Regional, also spoke before the council and laid what he said was a fervent hope that there can be a compromise between opening everything up and closing everything down.

“We don’t have to make a choice between closing everything down and opening everything up,” Ferguson said. “We can work together. That would be my plea.”

The words of the doctor were echoed by the politician. Hemmert said that areas that move green should do so based on the data. He decried those he described as both “open everything up” and “close everything down.”

“It should not be done for political reasons and, that’s what’s starting to frustrate me,” Hemmert said. “Frankly, I’m seeing folks using this as a political sounding board one way or the other.”

Medical personnel administer COVID-19 tests at the Intermountain drive-thru coronavirus testing site at the 400 East Campus of Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on May 30, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Hemmert feels the concept behind the recommendations to close businesses and to stay home is being lost.

“It was never about stopping a disease. It was about slowing the disease so that we didn’t overwhelm our hospitals,” Hemmert said. “I think a lot of people have assumed, ‘Oh, we’re just not supposed to get sick.’ No, you’re supposed to get sick still. It’s just you’re supposed to do it slowly so there is a hospital bed available for you if you need one.”

Hemmert cites Iron County as an example of an area that could potentially go green.

“They don’t have a lot of cases. They don’t have a lot of hospitalizations. They are tracing well, so they know how people are getting sick.,” Hemmert said.

Iron County had its highest one-day total of cases, 15, on Thursday. Cedar City Hospital has a total of 48 beds in the entire facility. 

Carroll and Ferguson reported to the St. George Council that while additional hospitalizations for the virus at Dixie Regional were doubling almost on a daily basis, the increase has not been as exponential this week. 

Dixie Regional, which had a capacity of 24 ICU beds, has now expanded to 32 ICU beds. An entire floor has 32 beds devoted to just COVID-19 patients outside the ICU.

The main entrance to Dixie Regional Medical Center on in St. George, Utah on May 8, 2020. | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“A week ago, we were in a situation where that was almost filled up, but fortunately, that didn’t occur,” Carroll told the council. While he didn’t give an exact figure of coronavirus patients in the hospital at this time, he said the hospital still has a lot of wiggle room.

“We are not in danger of running out of beds or ventilators,” he said. 

The job of protecting the public now needs to fall more on the public itself, said Hemmert, who urged high-risk people to continue to stay at home and for others to practice social distancing and wear masks. 

“At some point, we have to get back to what I think was a more American culture, which is ‘I’m going to do what’s right for me, and I’m going to be respectful to others. And I don’t need the government to be telling me every step of the way how to live my life. I don’t need the government to tell me how to dress,’” Hemmert said. “I can be smart and responsible and respectful of others and at some point, we have to get there. We’re at a point where it’s appropriate for the government to start stepping back and putting more personal responsibility back on the individual.”

COVID-19 information resources

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of June 4, 2020, one-day increase in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 524 (27 new in one day)

  • Washington County: 410 (10 new)
  • Iron County: 107 (15 new)
  • Garfield County: 4 (1 new)
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 0

Deaths: 4 

  • Washington County: 3 
  • Iron County: 1

Hospitalized: 17 (1 new, 2 released) 

Tested: 12,715 (3,004 new tests)

Recovered: 320 (22 new).

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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