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Utah Lt. Governor On Declaring State Of Emergency As Coronavirus Cases Rise

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Utah, new cases of the coronavirus surged for more than two months, but what was once a hotspot has become a raging fire. In response, Governor Gary Herbert has introduced new measures to help fight the pandemic's hold on his state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GARY HERBERT: We cannot afford to debate this issue any longer. Individual freedom is certainly important, and it is our rule of law that protects that freedom. Laws are put in place to protect all of us. That's why we have traffic lights and speed limits and seatbelts, and that's why we now have a mask mandate.

CORNISH: That state mask mandate and a ban on casual social gatherings for two weeks kicked in yesterday. Joining us now to talk about the situation in Utah is Lieutenant Governor and Governor-elect Spencer Cox.

Welcome to the program.

SPENCER COX: Thank you, Audie. It's great to be with you.

CORNISH: Given the numbers of the last two months, why wait until now to put these restrictions in place?

COX: Well, if you actually look at the progress of the disease here in Utah, while they were rising, they were rising at kind of a slow and steady pace. Unfortunately, over the last 10 days, we've seen a significant increase in the trajectory of that spread. And what's really driving this concern is, of course, hospitalizations and our ICU capacity. We are starting to fill up our ICU capacity. And, of course, our nurses and doctors are tired. They're exhausted. They're feeling overwhelmed. And we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the country. But the concern is that that mortality rate will go up as the...

CORNISH: Was it the mortality rate that prevented you from acting sooner?

COX: I think the mortality rate was part of it for sure. We did act - so we put in place a mask mandate three weeks ago that covered about 95% of the state. However, it was very confusing which counties were in and which weren't. And, really, it's the hospitalizations that have us the most concerned right now.

CORNISH: What are you doing to help ease the burden on hospitals?

COX: Well, as we talk to the hospitals, again, what they need most is for these case counts to change. And so that's the reason for this announcement. And we're seeing most of the growth in social settings. We're doing a much better job now that we know about the virus in retail settings and at schools, but it's being driven by extended family gatherings and social gatherings. And so these new changes that the governor announced - we hope and the medical profession believes - will have a significant impact on this. Now, as far as hospitals go, though, we are load-leveling between our hospital systems. So we're moving patients from one system to another where there are available beds to try to reduce the load on some of our most overcome hospitals. And we're not taking patients now from southern Idaho and Wyoming and some other places that often bring their patients into Utah.

CORNISH: But at this point, there is care rationing going on, right?

COX: Very limited care rationing - I guess it depends on the definition of care rationing in that, you know, where we would have one nurse for two or three patients, now we have one nurse for four patients. So in that case, yes, there is some care rationing that is going on but nothing extreme like we saw in New York in the earlier days or in other countries.

CORNISH: Can I come back to that ban on casual social gathering? How are you going to enforce that?

COX: Well, as you know, it's impossible to enforce. I mean, we're not going into people's homes. That's not going to happen. But the hope is that most people - and we hope that all people will take this very seriously. And it's - I think people are tired. We know people are tired. It's been eight months now, and now the disease is getting worse. And so we're really trying to get their attention. The governor sent out an emergency alert over people's cellphones. At 9 o'clock Sunday night, we interrupted all broadcasts in the state at 9:30 with this five-minute video of the governor talking about these new changes and these new restrictions. And at least over the past couple days, with what we've seen on social media, it did get people's attention. And so we're hoping that they will be much more careful in their home settings.

CORNISH: That's Utah Lieutenant Governor and Governor-elect Spencer Cox.

Thank you for your time.

COX: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.