Utah County Health Department launches COVID-19 project to serve underprivileged communities 01

Healthcare worker Shelby Smith stores a used swab in a bin after administering a coronavirus test at a COVID-19 testing site outside of Timpanogos Regional Hospital in Orem on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. Isaac Hale, Daily Herald

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Peterson on Monday criticized how Utah officials have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic up to this point and outlined an 11-step coronavirus response plan that would include implementing a statewide mask mandate and working with community leaders to mount a “more aggressive statewide educational campaign” to encourage compliance with health guidelines.

“I am here today because I believe that, at this point, we need to recognize that our current coronavirus policies are a failure,” Peterson, a University of Utah business law professor, said at a press conference outside the Utah State Capitol.

The press conference took place a day after the Utah Department of Health reported 1,387 new positive coronavirus cases, the second-highest number of single-day cases on record.

Shortly after the press conference on Monday, the health department reported 1,105 new cases, marking the fourth consecutive day that cases have topped 1,000.

“Today, the United States has had the most chaotic and ineffective coronavirus response of any industrialized nation in the world,” the Democratic candidate said. “And now, Utah is unequivocally one of the worst hotspots for COVID in America. After eight months of ineffective leadership, it is time for the public to recognize that the current administration is failing in its response to the pandemic.”

Peterson referenced an audit released on Wednesday by the Office of the State Auditor that found that state officials “did not adequately anticipate or prepare for” the COVID-19 pandemic and lacked “effective collaboration” in responding to it.

Peterson said the audit “raises troubling concerns over potential steering of lucrative government contracts to the friends and political supporters” of Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, Peterson’s Republican opponent in the gubernatorial race.

The auditors reviewed no-bid contracts between the state and private companies and found that testing contracts were “steered” to businesses associated with Silicon Slopes.

“The Lt. Governor reported that the Task Force (led by Cox) made no procurement decisions and issued no procurement recommendations,” the auditors wrote in a footnote of the report. “However, we noted in a March 23, 2020, SS (Silicon Slopes) Town Hall, that SS credited the Lt. Governor and GOMB (Governor’s Office of Management and Budget) for ‘being incredible … (in) removing barriers to get this figured out.’

“We also note that the Governor and Lt. Governor had a relatively close relationship with SS and various of its member companies,” the report said. “This causes particular concerns when contracts are steered to those companies, especially at the approval of the Governor.”

As part of his 11-step plan for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the surge in statewide cases, Peterson said that state officials “need to ensure that the control of the pandemic is in the hands of health officials and decisions are being made based on the best available public health and medical science.”

Additional measures outlined in the plan include conducting an audit of the state’s coronavirus website “to ensure the public has up-to-date and truly transparent information on data elucidating what’s happening during our ongoing crisis,” establishing a plan requiring a minimum of 30 contact tracers per 100,000 people and expanding Medicaid coverage of all coronavirus-related care to Utahns without health insurance.

The plan also called for a statewide mask requirement “where physical separations are not possible,” noting that case rates are high in rural parts of the state outside Utah and Salt Lake counties, both of which have implemented mask mandates, including Box Elder, Cache, Iron and Juab counties.

During a Sept. 29 debate, Cox said he believed mask mandate decisions should be made by county and city officials, not state leaders.

In addition to outlining his COVID-19 response plan, Peterson called on Cox to release an “enhanced” conflict of interest disclosure of all political campaign contributions and for the Utah State Legislature’s internal auditors to conduct an “open review” of the state’s coronavirus response.

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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