2020 budget and proposed tax increase discussion 05

Utah County Commissioners Bill Lee, Tanner Ainge and Nathan Ivie listen as Josh Daniels, Utah County deputy clerk/auditor, speaks during a town hall meeting concerning the 2020 budget and the proposed tax increase held Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, at the Utah County Health and Justice Building in Provo. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Utah County commissioners are hoping Gov. Gary Herbert will move the county from a “yellow” designation to “green” with regards to COVID-19 risk levels.

Commissioner Bill Lee called for a work session to take place during Wednesday’s public meeting to discuss “requesting the state government to move Utah County to green status under the state’s color-coded health guidance system,” according to the meeting’s agenda.

“I’m in favor, as I’ve vocally said multiple times, of moving to that green phase,” Lee said on Wednesday. “It’s (the COVID-19 pandemic) affecting us in all kinds of different ways, besides health as well. And I think it’s past time for us to move. And so I just wanted to bring it out as a work session item.”

Lee said he originally wanted the Utah County Commission to write a letter to Herbert and Jefferson Burton, the active director of the Utah Department of Health, requesting the change.

But after the Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission unanimously voted Tuesday to recommend “adopting a modified yellow phase and a smart green risk phase in the state’s phased guidelines in the Utah Leads Together Plan” and have most of the state transition to the smart green risk phase, Lee said it would make more sense for the county to send a letter stating that it supported such a move.

“I found this … refreshing that that’s going to be a recommendation,” said Lee. “And since I was going to propose that we send a letter, maybe the letter would be modified, it would be modified in the sense that we would support what the state commission is going to be recommending or probably has already recommended. The governor does have to ultimately make the decision on this.”

The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission, which was created to advise state officials how to combat the virus and is co-chaired by Burton and Senate Majority Whip Dan Hemmert, R-Orem, made its recommendation based on the state’s low hospitalization, transmission and fatality rates.

“COVID-19 cases may continue to rise as the state transitions to lower risk phases,” the commission said in a press release on Tuesday. “However, the number of cases has proven to be a poor indicator of health risk for all Utahns since 99 percent of individuals who contract COVID-19 recover. Hospitalization is a key factor and Utah has low hospitalization rates. In addition, Utah has one of the lowest fatalities rates in the nation, increased tracing capabilities and COVID-19 testing centers across the state.”

Utah would remain in a state of emergency during a smart green risk phase, according to the commission, which said “the lower risk level does not indicate that our state is back to normal.”

“A smart green risk phase encourages individuals to continue practicing social distancing and wear a mask in public,” the commission said. “Face coverings protect the medically frail, a responsibility of everyone in the state. The Commission encourages individuals to wear a mask as a mark of common respect for the high-risk population.”

But the Utah Department of Health warned against transitioning to a green phase since Utah has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases as restrictions have eased.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in the state surpassed 10,000 on Sunday, in part because of 332 new cases reported on May 28, the largest single-day case count since the outbreak began.

“I want to be very clear today that we have (an) increased spread of COVID-19 in Utah,” state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said during a press conference on Wednesday. “This past week we have had a sharp spike in cases, and it’s not explained easily by a single outbreak or increase in testing. This is a statewide trend.”

Utah County Health Department Executive Director Ralph Clegg told the Utah County Commission on Wednesday that Utah had one of the lowest hospitalization rates in the nation and that the county was no exception to this trend.

According to Clegg, Utah County’s intensive care unit (ICU) bed capacity has hovered at around 54%, which is below the state’s criteria to have capacity stay under 60% for seven to 14 days.

“Sometimes it dips down to about 50%, sometimes a little lower,” said Clegg.

Commissioner Nathan Ivie said he was “for sure supportive” of requesting that Utah County move to a green designation.

“I think I would concur with Commissioner Lee,” Ivie said. “I think we need to move forward.”

Commissioner Tanner Ainge said he preferred to yield to state officials rather than request that Utah County move to green but acknowledged the need to continue re-opening the economy.

“I’m happy to collaborate and ask questions … if I think there’s something that’s unique to our county,” said Ainge. “But overall, I’m comfortable with where they’ve (state officials) been leading us.”

Herbert had not stated as of Thursday afternoon whether any part of the state would be transitioning to green.

There have been 2,088 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in Utah County since the beginning of the pandemic as of Thursday, according to the Utah Department of Health, resulting in 110 hospitalizations and 17 deaths.

Connor Richards covers government, the environment and south Utah County for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at crichards@heraldextra.com and 801-344-2599.

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