COVID-19 discussion with Public Health Director

The COVID-19 pandemic was the focus of a discussion between San Juan County Public Health Director Kirk Benge and the Blanding City Council on April 28.

Benge answered questions and provided an inside perspective into state and county efforts to mitigate the ongoing health crisis.  

Benge gave a rough idea on the number of people tested in the county and how many households have the virus. By keeping track of the number of households affected, the county has a clearer idea of how far the virus has spread. 

Benge also clarified the role played by the county and city. Last week, Utah law changed to give the governor power to issue an order rather than delegate it to the local health officer.

Benge reports that the amount of power held by the local health officer took a lot of people by surprise. 

Under the new law, local health officers cannot issue an order that is more or less strict than what the governor has issued without explicit authorization. 

Councilmember Logan Shumway said, “Short story is...the governor has the full authority for...everywhere.” 

Benge replied, “He does not want locals to be going rogue. He wants to do it in conversation with local health departments.”

City Manager Jeremy Redd asked what activities the city could plan, specifically regarding youth baseball, opening the pool, and the Fourth of July celebration.  

Benge discussed the Utah Leads Together publication with guidelines outlining what activities can proceed under red-, orange-, yellow-, and green-coded risk scenarios. 

Under the current orange, or moderate-risk level, team sports are disallowed, as are large group gatherings. Pools are limited to lap swim with one swimmer per lane. 

Benge said, “We don’t know what effect our actions today will have for two weeks… We’re at a significant disadvantage in San Juan, because, unlike the majority of the population of Utah that can get testing results in 24 hours…our test results take 72 hours to get. We don’t always know the effect of what our decisions are today.” 

The council hopes something can be worked out for the Fourth of July celebration. Mayor Joe Lyman said, “That’s going to be a huge impact, emotionally, for Blanding, if we can’t pull that off.” 

While Benge is hopeful restrictions can be relaxed, he said, “Group gatherings are still the most significant threat that we face right now.”

Benge said one of the biggest keys to move away from restrictions is to make sure community spread of the virus doesn’t happen. 

When a new COVID-19 case is identified, most of the time they determine the new case had exposure to another known case. 

While community spread here is rare, Benge said, “If we open up and see people exposed and we don’t know where, that’s a danger to our community. That means we have community spread. That would drive us to clamp back down a little bit.

“Ultimately, we have to try and maintain a situation where whenever someone is infected, they only infect one person, maybe two. If one person infects ten, this will get out of control really fast, and we won’t have enough hospital beds to keep up.”

Benge reports Utah is doing well in response to the crisis. He said, “I’m glad we’re in the position we are in. When I look around the United States, we’ve currently got 59,000 deaths. Colorado right next door has 700 deaths. 

“Utah is nothing like that. It’s a credit to our governor of being able to take swift action. It’s a credit to our communities.

“People really are good at social distancing. They are good at caring about their neighbors. They are good at doing what’s best for the community even if it’s a personal sacrifice.

“Ultimately we’re going to be in a much better economic position than most states because of the drastic action we took early on. But time will tell. As we ease up, I think this is going to get a little bit scary before it gets better. We’re just barely getting into this.” 

Benge reports that closing down early allowed the healthcare system to prepare for the virus. 

“What we’ve done by clamping down early is we’ve given our hospitals a real opportunity to get some PPE (personal protective equipment) in place, to figure out what they’re doing, to build some triage systems, and to start screening people that come in.

“If there’s anything I feel has been a real success in our current situation is that our hospitals are much better prepared.”

Councilmember Cheryl Bowers asked about hospitalizations in San Juan County. Benge reports a couple of people have flown out.

He said, “We typically fly people out to Grand Junction or Salt Lake City. If those hospitals fill up, that represents a risk to us.

“We want to monitor not just our local hospitals, but our referral hospitals if they start to spill back to us.

“We’re going to monitor hospital bed utilization, regional and state hospital bed utilization, and monitor disease transmission to give us the best data on how effective our gradual opening is, whether it represents a significant risk.” 

When Shumway asked about the numbers being reported, Benge said, “You always have to take the current statistics with a grain of salt. The current statistics are influenced by what we’re doing.

“We’ve locked down nursing homes. We’ve locked down jails. We’re not allowing outbreaks to occur in some more vulnerable populations. 

“Our numbers are looking pretty good, and it’s giving people a false sense of security that this isn’t as dangerous as it really is.

“If we open up and some of these groups start to get exposed, they are going to be hospitalized at a much, much higher rate.

“You’ve got to really trust the experts who are doing the data analysis and have a better understanding of the specific groups that are currently involved.”

Benge also said antibody tests are clear evidence the virus hasn’t already been through the population. 

“There are rumors that we may have already seen this in our community and it has already passed through and maybe we’re immune. There’s no evidence for that. 

“There’s quite a bit of evidence that contradicts that. We had quite a few hospitalizations in late February and early March that we tested. And none of them were positive. And these people that have gotten antibody tests have reaffirmed that.” 

Benge praised the state for putting together a comprehensive plan to move forward. He said, “I’m really impressed with the governor’s plan. We are trying to keep the local economies going at a rate they can handle without putting undue risk on our vulnerable populations. It’s a difficult line to walk.” 

Shumway said, “If we really look at the data, a very, very small percentage has been affected. My question earlier when does it get back to normal, we are months if not years away from that scenario.”

Benge replied, “I would make the same comment. We are years away from normal, based on everything I know.”

Mayor Lyman added, “The economic impact could be way more devastating than the disease, and we don’t know – and I don’t know –if there is an answer. We know that poverty causes lack of food, fuel, shelter, and medicine, and it causes death. We know that. And we know there’s a risk of this virus. 

“Somewhere in between may be the best course, but there is no answer. We muddle through and do the best we can. I don’t have an answer and people a lot smarter than me don’t have an answer.”

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