Utah’s pandemic response ranks third in the nation

BYU students outside the BYU Wilkinson Student Center share how they think Utah is handling the pandemic. Most of the students interviewed talked about Utah’s lax prevention policies. (Hannah McKinlay)

Utah ranked third in the nation in a Politico article rating how well states fared during the pandemic.

The article, written by Sean McMinn and Liz Crampton, scored each state in four categories: health, economy, social well-being and education. 

Economy in Utah

The Politico study placed Utah third for economic performance during the pandemic.

“States that shut down only briefly — or not at all — rebounded far quicker than those that remained closed. Many of the states that did not issue orders directing residents to refrain from participating in nonessential activities – including Arkansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah – had better-than-average economic outcomes on the scorecard,” the article said.

BYU economics professor Christian vom Lehn pointed out the article does not exactly control for states’ economic standing pre-COVID-19. 

“Utah’s economy has been very strong for a long time, and the fact that it’s still strong during COVID-19 — it’s not clear that you can attribute that to policies and responses to the pandemic,” he said.

Despite this potential shortcoming in the article’s methods, vom Lehn agrees Utah does have characteristics that may have contributed to a less severe economic drop. 

“Being a landlocked state, we had the advantage of COVID not coming to us right away,” he said. As the article notes, the virus hit coastal states first, contributing to their “more sluggish economic recovery.”

Public health in Utah

Two masks lie on a desk. Masks and other measures to prevent COVID-19 transmissions are recommended but not required in Utah, perhaps contributing to its high economic performance during the pandemic. (Photo illustration by Hannah McKinlay)

In the health category, Utah placed 16th. The article points to states’ predominant political parties as an indicator of their health performance.

“During the pandemic, Republican-led states tended to be more resistant to mask mandates and stay-at-home edicts while Democratic governors, by and large, embraced those public health precautions, even at the expense of the local economy,” the article said.

Utah, despite its Republican majority, received a fairly high score. Vom Lehn called attention to the fact that one of the measures of health is death rate, and Utah has a uniquely young population. 

The messages given in a Utah Hospital Association press release Jan. 6 suggest the state’s health situation is much more dire than Politico’s ranking implies.

Medical staff testing positive and experiencing burnout has led to critical strain on hospitals, according to The University of Utah’s Chief Nursing Officer Tracey Nixon.

“We have closed beds in our hospitals, one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made,” Nixon said. “We are facing shifts where we’re so understaffed that our staff are afraid to come to work.”

Emergency department physician Marion Bishop expressed concern for people who go to hospitals not only for COVID-19 but for other serious infirmities. Staffing shortages and high admittance rates have also impacted these patients, Bishop said.

“People who come in the middle of a heart attack, people who were involved in motor vehicle trauma because of the weather — I want to be able to take care of those patients too,” Bishop said.

Social well-being in Utah

Utah’s lowest ranking is in the category of social well-being, in which it holds 33rd place. The article judges social well-being based on food insecurity, households’ economic hardship and violent crime. 

Jennifer Nuttall, executive director of the Neighborhood House, can attest to the increased financial stress the pandemic has caused families. 

The Neighborhood House provides affordable preschool, daycare and adult care to low-income families in Salt Lake City, and COVID-19 has compromised its ability to fulfill this function, she said.

“If we’re not here and parents can’t bring their kids to daycare, how do they get to work? How are they supposed to maintain their jobs when there’s so many disruptions because of COVID?” asked Nuttall. “That creates instability in their work environment.”

The Neighborhood House has taken measures to adapt to COVID-19 in the omicron surge and is thus remaining open to serve families. However, many families are still struggling, Nuttall said.

The article largely ascribes social well-being scores to “a state’s ability to implement federal programs and get aid to those who need it.” Nuttall acknowledged the state’s role in people’s financial security.

“There isn’t a strong social net, and that is partially attributable to government policies,” she said. “And when families are barely surviving, that makes their social well-being plummet.”

Education in Utah

The article assessed how well states managed in the education sector during the pandemic. Rankings in this category, in which Utah placed 18th, are based on changes in reading and math scores.

Utah has seen considerable learning loss over the course of the pandemic, especially in math, the article reports. Although schools have implemented virtual learning, missing in-person classes has its consequences.

“It really just furthers the gap between the students that need help and the students that are already doing well,” said Melly Gary-Peterson, a fifth-grade teacher at Alpine Elementary School. “It’s so hard for kids that don’t want to learn to feel motivated when there’s no teacher there pushing them.”

COVID-19 has added pressures on teachers to be able to change lesson plans on a whim. For example, the Alpine School District board voted that school days would be one hour shorter for the month of February, then rescinded the policy a day later.

“I can’t trust that the next day is going to go on like normal or if it’s just all going to shut down,” Gary-Peterson said. “I’m just always stressed about how I’m going to help these kids catch up.”

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