‘The data doesn’t justify it’: Governor denies Washington, Iron counties request to move to green coronavirus risk level

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert walks through the rotunda to a COVID-19 briefing July 30, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah. | Photo by Rick Bowmer, Associated Press, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Gov. Gary Herbert has denied a request from local leaders and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department to move Washington and Iron counties into the green recommended restrictions level for the coronavirus.

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a press conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Sept. 10, 2020 | Screenshot from Gov. Gary Herbert Facebook page, St. George News

Updated Sept. 10, 7 p.m.: Reaction from local leaders, additional info.

In response to a question from St. George News, Herbert said while he prefers to listen to where local leaders want to go for their jurisdictions, their requests still have to be backed up by data.  

Herbert said the request sent last Friday by the Washington County Commission and backed by the local health department was denied because he said the rate of infections in Washington and Iron counties has still not stabilized for a long period of time. 

“That’s a little hard to do if the data doesn’t justify it. So it’s not a matter of just making the request. It’s also having data to back it up that includes the local health department and their region, and then that’s reviewed by the state health department based on the protocols,” Herbert said. “Washington County and Iron County, for example, are getting close, but there’s a few areas of transmission rates that are a little bit too high.”

A move to green would allow for gatherings of any number and end any recommended restrictions in local businesses as far as the number of patrons and distancing, leaving just precautions for those who are high-risk.

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

While denying Washington and Iron counties, the governor did grant requests from Box Elder and Carbon counties to move to green Thursday.

After showing a slight uptick in the first week of September, the infection rate in Washington and Iron counties is on a downward trend, according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. 

This week, new infections are down 29% in Washington County (from 15.7 cases per day to 11.1) and 39% in Iron County (from 5.9 to 3.6). Washington County has had two days in the single-digits for new cases this week, while Iron County has had two days with no new cases at all. 

Hospitalizations have remained steady this month with seven local people presently hospitalized for the virus, while there have been two deaths in Washington County in the last two days. 

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

While he said the two counties are close to being stabilized, Herbert has said in the past that he has been looking for at least 14 days of steady numbers. As he announced plans for the direction the state takes in the fall to deal with the virus, he also said there are too many factors that make this the wrong time to lessen recommended restrictions in the two counties. 

“We are also in a kind of a tenuous time with schools coming back into session. And so, what does that get impact as well as we all start getting into the fall months where people will start traveling to the southern part of our state for vacation time. And so that causes a little bit of pause and we want to be a little bit cautionary about that,” Herbert said. “What we don’t want to do is move to a green category and then have to come back later on and move back to a yellow category.”

Washington County Commissioner Gil Almquist, who authored the letter asking for the green status, expressed his disappointment with the decision to St. George News and said the state is basing its decisions on numbers that “aren’t accurate.” 

Gil Almquist speaks at a luncheon hosted by the Washington County Republican Women in St. George, Utah, May 3, 2018 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

“The reality here is their numbers are not based on the reality of what’s happening down here. My disappointment is the focus is on cases. Not on hospitalizations and deaths,” Almquist said. “We have been asked to flatten the curve and for 175 days we have done that. It is time to let our people go.”

During his press conference at the State Capitol Thursday, Herbert made his own biblical allusion toward why he thinks it’s not time to declare mission accomplished as far as defeating the coronavirus is concerned. 

“I like the trend, but we’re not in the promised land yet,” Herbert said. “It’s not time to declare victory, but in comparison to other states, we’ve done pretty well. My biggest concern is one of complacency that people think we’re out of the woods. I know it’s a sacrifice but if we’re going to get through this thing over the next year, we need to tolerate some inconvenience.”

Almquist, who is also a member of the Southwest Utah Public Health Department Board of Health, said Southern Utahns are not being rewarded for the preventative efforts they have made.

“It’s like a kid who wants to play on Saturday and is told to clean the room and you can go play. Then you’re told, ‘OK, now mow the grass. They’re basically saying we never want you to go play,” Almquist said. “We just feel that we want to play on Saturday.”

Almquist said he plans to work with local legislators and put together another request to move to green in the next week. 

The three other Southwest Utah counties – Garfield, Kane and Beaver – have been in green status since June. While all three experienced substantial spikes in infections since then, they have stabilized since mid-August, with Garfield not seeing any new cases since Aug. 4. 

Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson shares what projects of note the county is working on in 2020, St. George. Utah, Jan. 13, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Almquist’s fellow Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson, who has been previously outspoken about never wearing a mask, agreed with an assertion made by Almquist that the “goalposts are always being moved.” 

“I wish he would turn it over to our local health department. We all just want to get back to normal,” Iverson told St. George News. “We were told this would be short-term we just want to go back to normal. Normal would be to put personal responsibility to everyone. Just encourage people to practice the precautions.”

Iverson said he still stands by his statements on masks, but added there are some circumstances where they should be worn. 

“If you’re going to visit someone in the hospital, you should wear masks, but I would still stand by my position that masks shouldn’t be worn by healthy people,” Iverson said. “You shouldn’t be wearing masks unless they’re visiting someone who is sick. It shouldn’t be mandatory, especially for students.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Utah Department of Health and the Southwest Utah Public Health Department all recommend wearing a mask when social distancing is not possible as many who are infected with the virus do not have symptoms and would not know they are spreading it. And a recent BYU study said that wearing masks or face coverings are effective at stopping 90% of virus-filled droplets from escaping from an infected person.

Chart shows cases in Southern Utah from the coronavirus from May 1 to Sept. 10, 2020 according to the Southwest Utah Public Health Department. | Chart by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Public health experts have also attributed much of the state’s drop in infection rate in August to the increased use of masks by the public as well as many major store chains requiring them.  

The move to green was endorsed by Southwest Utah Public Health Department Director Dr. David Blodgett who recently expressed that the state is not listening to the recommendations of the local health department. 

However, the department’s spokesperson David Heaton said they actually support the governor’s decision. 

“We support the governor going by the data he does. We support his decision. We’ve seen a definite decline, then bump up, then a decline again. His decision to use caution for another period of time … we respect that..,” Heaton said, adding that he expects if current trends continue, the local counties may be able to go green. “We won’t be surprised if we move to green soon.”

Stuart Adams, president of Utah’s State Senate, said during the joint press conference with the governor, that legislation passed in the most recent special session could allow local cities and counties to be more lenient than the governor, though he cautioned that localities still need to take data into account.

“Local jurisdictions could actually be less restrictive than what the governor’s recommendations were, but they couldn’t be more and so I think as we walk through this I think again, we’re trying to balance this around the state,” Adams said.

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson had more caution that now is not the time to reduce preventative measures against the coronavirus.

The current health metrics of the state’s “Unified Response Plan,” which state leaders say they are using to determine the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Numbers as of Sept. 10, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Utah Governor’s Office, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“I find it helpful to think of wars and battles. If you win enough battles, you are victorious in the war. … It becomes important that we are fighting the right battles. We need everyone to understand we are not at the finish line. We are maybe at the midway point. We have more work to do,” Wilson said. “All Utahns need to be involved. We need to not get distracted.” 

The governor and legislative leaders, as well as Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, introduced what they said was the framework to fight the virus through the fall. Though what was presented wasn’t a “Utah Leads Together 5.0” as much as it was just to metrics to aim at. Called the “Unified Response Plan,” it carries on the directives of the previous plan with hard metrics to monitor.

“What we’re looking for is simplicity,” Cox, a Republican who is running to take Herbert’s place, said.  

According to the plan, there will be two major metrics that will drive decisions by the state government against the virus: The fatality rate and the unemployment rate. 

The goal is to keep the fatality rate of the virus below 1% and the state unemployment rate below 4.5%. At present, both goals are being met, with the fatality rate at 0.77% and unemployment rate right at 4.5%. Both are among the lowest in the nation. A new scorecard has been added to the state’s coronavirus website.

“As we see good things happening, we’re not going to rest on our laurels,” Herbert said. “We’re modifying our strategies so we have even better outcomes to come.”

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

We invite you to check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Sept. 10, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 3,774 (15.7 new infections per day in seven days, dropping)

  • Washington County: 2,938 (11.1 per day, dropping)
  • Iron County: 685 (3.6 per day, dropping)
  • Kane County: 72 (1.0 per day, rising)
  • Garfield County: 46 (0 per day, steady) 
  • Beaver County: 33 (0 per day, steady) 

Deaths: 29 (0.3 per day, rising)

  • Washington County: 24 (1 new)
  • Iron County: 2
  • Garfield County: 2
  • Kane County: 1

Hospitalized: 7 (rising)

Recovered: 3,422

Current Utah seven-day average: 381 (dropping)

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

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!