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Utah's Epidemiologist On Where We Go From Here

Photo of Angela Dunn speaking into a microphone
Pool photo
Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, speaks to the media on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 4, 2020.

It’s been nearly two months since Utah’s first confirmed case of COVID-19. Since then, life has changed dramatically with extensive social distancing, school closures and more than 5,000 cases. Friday though, the state shifted from its “red” or high risk response phase to “orange,” or moderate. 

To help us understand where we are now and where we go from here, KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn on her way to a press briefing. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: We just finished our first weekend in the orange phase, how do you think it went?

Angela Dunn: I don't know how the public reacted to being in orange. And then in terms of the impact on the outbreak, it's going to take a couple of weeks for us to understand what being in orange means for us in Utah in terms of COVID cases.

CB: Last week, you called the move from red to orange “aggressive.” What worries you about shifting to orange? And did you feel pressured to take steps to reopen?

AD: No. I mean, my role is to provide the Governor's Office with the best public health and scientific guidance that I have. Then they take that into consideration with a lot of other experts, including economic experts, to make their final policy decisions. There's a lot of things that weigh on these decisions beyond just public health. 

So from a public health perspective, it certainly is an aggressive move because we haven't seen a sharp decline in cases. Ideally, from public health, we'd want to see a decline for a couple of weeks before we feel absolutely comfortable that we're seeing more control of COVID-19. 

However, in Utah, we definitely have seen a lot of progress and a lot of promising metrics around that. For example, we've plateaued. We haven't seen an increase in cases over the past 10 days or so, and that's a good sign. We've also been able to increase our testing capacity, and our contact tracing is robust. And so those elements make this decision aggressive, but not totally crazy. 

CB: As states begin to reopen, what do you see as Utah's biggest vulnerabilities? 

AD: A lot of what we've relied upon up until now has been people following the governor's directive. We actually haven't had a lot of regulations enforced by law, and so we're going to continue to rely upon businesses and Utahns to continue doing social distancing when possible and being smart about their exposures, especially for the vulnerable populations. 

I think that's true across the country, that people just get sick and tired of being at home and we all eventually forget why we were asked to do it in the first place. That kind of complacency could make us susceptible to another peak in cases. I don't think Utah's unique in that, but it's definitely something that we need to watch out for.

CB: We don't have a vaccine yet, and we aren't going to reach significant containment likely for a while. Are we going to have to live with the fact that some people will get very sick and die?

AD: That's something that's already happening, unfortunately, and this is the worst part of a pandemic — the inability to predict who's going to get sick and who's going to die. The inability to prevent it. So yes, that's going to continue to happen and the best thing we can work towards is a vaccine as quickly as possible, and protecting those who we know are vulnerable through social distancing and through good policy. And I think we're in the right place here in Utah to do that. But it's certainly not a great position. If we weren't having a pandemic, life would certainly be a lot better for all of us. 

CB: So much has changed in the last few months. How people interact day to day personally and professionally is fundamentally different from two months ago, it feels like a moment of cultural shift in some ways. What would you like to see become permanent after all of this? 

AD: I hope people really take to heart the importance to stay home when you're sick. We all do this during respiratory and flu season — we go to work with a tiny cough and we tough it out. And we need to stop that culture of toughing it out and going to work or school no matter what — and really encouraging people to stay home through good sick leave policies, good teleworking policies and making that our culture. Because it'll prevent all diseases moving forward. Not just COVID, but the next flu season will be better to handle. Then if there's another novel virus circulating, we will all be better equipped to respond to it if we can get that into our culture.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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