Utah tested, reached out to the private sector, and paid attention to lockdowns.
We tested, contacted the private sector and paid attention to confinements.
Avoiding endless political food battles over COVID requires not only staying out of politics and the media, but all things public health. This needs to change because public health works best when it involves open debate.
I witnessed the early decision making of COVID in Utah. The best leaders were open to discussion and debate. They acknowledged the diverse, sometimes conflicting opinions of health and public health experts. They also recognized the need to protect lives and livelihoods as well as the education of our children, mental health issues and many other factors that contribute to quality of life.
We’re learning more about the past two years, but our leaders in Utah have adopted more balanced and comprehensive solutions than leaders in other states. What our leaders have delivered has served the citizens of Utah well. Recent studies show how well Utah has done. The proof is not just in our death rates, but also in how we have protected public education and local economic growth.
What we did well falls into four categories:
First, we adopted widespread and easy-to-find COVID tests, even for those who were asymptomatic. Rather than using testing to simply look back and see what happened, Utah used testing to anticipate the spread and mitigate its transmission in real time.
Second, we have opened our COVID response to private sector expertise. Our public and private health entities either lacked the capacity to meet testing needs or were actively resisting scalable and accessible testing. It took a while for naysayers to see the value of widespread testing in fighting the spread, but Utah leaders understood that value right away.
Without engaging the private sector to help develop the necessary operations and infrastructure, the citizens of Utah would have paid the price. While the well-meaning people involved in the test response worked tirelessly, competing factions were quick to criticize the decisions. Emergencies are a time for building on expertise and capacity, not for launching politically motivated criticism. We have seen too much of these, but our leaders have stood up to the voices of these critics.
Third, we ended shelter-in-place closures sooner. Johns Hopkins researchers added to growing international research showing that strict lockdown policies have not succeeded. Utah understood that a well-run operation with early testing could get us out of shelter-in-place quickly and save lives, which it did.
Fourth, Utah leaders recognized the need for actionable data, not just anecdotal evidence of rule compliance. We heard daily about the public’s adherence to masks, social distancing and shelter-in-place orders. At first, we heard nothing about state-level test turnaround times. If a key objective was to protect hospital capacity, one would assume that real-time data dictated decision-making. This was not the case.
Instead, in the early days of COVID, too many experts relied on predictive modeling data designed to forecast the future and simply couldn’t produce data designed to manage the present. Predictive models have proven insufficient during a dynamic COVID response. Fortunately, Utah pivoted early and our leaders had access to real-time data on several key fronts reaching every corner of the state.
The leaders who orchestrated the state’s response knew that better operations could reduce the burden on the public. Their focus on operations to scale up vaccination deployments, deliver new treatments and accelerate testing. Our state leaders have taken a very proactive and aggressive stance to help protect at-risk populations and underserved populations.
Although Utah’s response to COVID has not been perfect, we have outperformed nearly every other state. Today we have lessons to pass on to the future. Our leaders have learned to act quickly, welcome debate, and reject false choices between protecting lives or protecting livelihoods. They have learned to leverage the supply side operational capabilities of the private sector. They learned the effectiveness of managing risk rather than trying to eliminate it.
While leaders in other states doubled down on a single mantra, “Follow the experts,” I still wondered which ones? Expert opinions were all over the map and changed frequently. The lesson here? Embrace different perspectives and opinions, don’t stifle them.
When the early days of COVID felt like a 24/7 stream of conflicting opinions, the worst of our leaders fueled public distrust with self-serving political agendas and myopic decision-making. Our best leaders have remained humble and kept an open mind. I am grateful to live in a state where key decision makers have adhered to a balanced approach.
Kristen Cox is the former Executive Director of the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget under the then administration. Gary Herbert. She is an expert management consultant, published author, and member of the advisory board of Western Governors University and Brigham Young University. She is also a professor at the University of Utah Eccles School of Business and executive director of their Government Improvement Initiative.