Utah Health Department feeling the stress of COVID-19 02

Coronavirus statistics from the Utah Department of Health’s website are displayed at the Utah County Health Department’s COVID-19 call center Tuesday, April 14, 2020, in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Sometimes rules are not made to be broken.

A statement was released this week by members of the Utah County Commission, and signed by the mayors of each community within the county, notifying the public that two local businesses did not follow COVID-19 guidelines. That decision led to 68 new cases in Utah County.

Contact tracing revealed that these businesses allegedly instructed employees not to follow quarantine guidelines after exposure to a confirmed case and required employees with COVID-19 to still report to work.

That is quite problematic.

It’s reasonable to think it’s impossible to completely eliminate the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace. Actively encouraging employees to ignore well-intended guidelines is another matter.

These guidelines, which include teleworking when possible, wearing a mask in public settings and monitoring the workforce for symptoms, seem achievable and easily enforceable by most companies in the near term.

Given that we’re dealing with a global pandemic, we can all endure a little more frustration to pave the way for a safe return to normalcy.

In the midst of these cases in Utah County is a deafening silence by county and city officials. They seem to perceive themselves as unable to name the companies ignoring these guidelines. It struck many as odd.

The Utah County Health Department attempted to explain the decision to forgo naming the businesses in a string of tweets on May 6.

“Only the information that will help a member of the public know whether or not an exposure may have occurred will be disclosed. Disclosing the identity of either the case or the contact:

“Unnecessarily puts the privacy of that individual at risk; in turn, Potentially puts the case into danger of receiving ridicule or rejection, having a reputation destroyed, or even bodily harm from others in the public.”

This is a generous interpretation of state law while also being a rather uncharitable interpretation of the public’s sentiment.

While it’s reasonable to think that epidemiologists at the state and county level have carefully considered the public’s risk of exposure as a result of these COVID-19 cases, it’s also reasonable to think it is impossible to know through contact tracing just how many members of the public were exposed as a result of these companies’ decisions.

With more than 33 million Americans losing their jobs as a result of some of these health guidelines, and the rest of us frustrated by the interruption to our lives, it’s fair to say that many members of the public want to assess whether they were exposed and what steps they should take to protect themselves and their families.

A discussion needs to be had at the state level to revise some of the conditions, and clarify certain language in Utah code, to bring greater transparency during pandemic situations in particular. Part of that should include releasing the names of businesses that encourage their employees to actively ignore certain health guidelines.

If the state is going to limit a company’s legal liability for problems resulting from COVID-19 exposure, the least legislators can do is provide the names of those companies so the public can make quality decisions. This would be no different from notifying the public during hepatitis or other contagious disease exposures.

As for the letter released by county and city officials in Utah County, the attempt to show frustration with the companies while also complying with a generous interpretation of state law is palpable.

Local officials should start the discussion by voluntarily releasing the names of these companies, letting the public use that information to their advantage and beginning work to lobby elected representatives at the state level to revise Utah code.

Situations like those cited in the county’s letter are generally avoidable. Let’s make that clear so that when another pandemic arises, we have a better framework for decision making.

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