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Gov. Spencer Cox on omicron, water conservation and ProPublica welfare investigation

A photo of Gov. Cox speaking at a podium.
Leah Hogsten/AP
The Salt Lake Tribune
Gov. Spencer Cox held his monthly press conference with PBS Utah Thursday.

During his monthly PBS Utah press conference, Gov. Spencer Cox weighed in on several state issues, including a potential COVID-19 surge, new water conservation bills and a report that found the state counted welfare dollars spent by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to meet its federal minimums.

Omicron Variant

The omicron variant of the coronavirus is worrying public health officials around the globe because it’s twice as transmissible than the delta variant and significantly more vaccine resistant. However, a booster shot helps people’s immune systems fight the omicron variant just about as well as delta, according to recent studies. A South African study found that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine still did a good job at keeping people out of the hospital, offering about 70% protection against it.

Some data out of South Africa, which first reported the variant, suggests omicron could be putting fewer people in the hospital, but experts warn that could be because so many people in the country have previously had the disease.

Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday he is waiting for more information on the variant, but did encourage people to get a booster shot. He said the severity of the disease will be a critical factor in his decision making.

“We have lots of illnesses that spread very quickly,” he said. “But if they're not filling up hospitals and killing people, you know, we go about our business. If they are filling up hospitals and killing people, then obviously it becomes much more concerning.”

Cox’s hands are essentially tied when it comes to issuing new public health restrictions. That’s the result of new laws from the Legislature passed this spring. He said new restrictions could be a challenge.

“We're always hopeful that we don't have to roll back those measures,” he said. “I think that they're probably less effective now than ever before. We're seeing that fatigue set in after getting close to two years [of the pandemic].”

He added that people have more tools to protect themselves now than they did earlier in the pandemic, including high quality masks and vaccines.

“People have the ability to take care of themselves and have that choice, and we'll continue to encourage people to do that,” Cox said.

Water Conservation

Cox laid out a legislative package to address the state’s water shortage. Utah has experienced historic drought this year and 79% of the state is currently in exceptional drought, according to the Division of Water Resources.

The bills, which will likely be considered during the upcoming 2022 legislative session, would provide funding to start metering more secondary water connections, prohibit cities and towns from mandating grass landscaping and provide more funding to encourage water-wise farming.

“This package that we are proposing this year will be by far the most significant advancement we've made in water conservation,” he said.

The governor also said Utah should shift to focusing more on water conservation than water storage.

“Utah hasn't been as serious about conservation as some other states, like maybe Arizona and Nevada,” he said. “You'll notice in my budget that we have very little money put aside for that type of water storage. We have significant money put aside for water conservation.”

But Cox stressed that the state needs to invest in both approaches.

Welfare spending investigation

A ProPublica investigation found that Utah counts a percentage of welfare spending from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints towards its own welfare spending. The report from the non-profit investigative news organization, also found that has allowed Utah “to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law.”

Cox pointed to an opinion article written by the head of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services that said the central claim of the investigation was entirely false.

Cox defended the relationship between the state agency and the Church.

“This allows our dollars to go further in the state of Utah and so I do think it is a positive thing,” he said. “We have an incredibly generous state. We lead the nation in charitable giving every year. We lead the nation in volunteerism every year. And you can't even begin to quantify that when you add all of those things together.”

Racism in schools

Cox said he has met with every school superintendent in the state following the death of a 10-year-old student last month. 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor’s family said she took her own life after being bullied at a Davis County school for being Black and autistic.

Cox said his meetings with superintendents included his senior advisor of equity and opportunity and other state officials. He said they shared experiences and approaches to deal with bullying in schools.

“I left that meeting feeling very optimistic about where we're headed,” Cox said, “that superintendents are recognizing that this isn't something they can just kind of put in the corner and maybe it'll go away — that it's something that we have to confront head on and that they're willing to have those difficult conversations.”

Cox added that the group will continue meeting to discuss best practices.

Vaccine mandates

A federal court ruled Wednesday that the federal order requiring healthcare workers to be vaccinated should remain on hold. The ruling applies to Utah and 13 other states that sued.

Cox said he agreed with the decision.

“We were desperate to get as many people vaccinated as possible, and government has a role to play,” he said. “But the way the president has done this, I believe, is unconstitutional … Congress has the ability to do this. That's the right way to do it.”

However, the governor said he would oppose any legislation that placed more limits on vaccine mandates in Utah. He signed a bill last month that allows workers to claim an exemption from vaccine mandates for sincerely held personal beliefs. However, that exemption is invalid if the employee needs to be vaccinated to do their job and cannot be reassigned.

“The compromise that we came up with is one that makes sense,” he said. “We need to come together. Taking the animosity out of the room is important. We've been able to successfully do that, I believe, here in the state of Utah with the law that was passed.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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