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Utah COVID-19 response
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State audit finds problems with Utah response to COVID-19 pandemic

FILE -- People gather for a press conference in the Emergency Operations Center at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 12, 2020, where officials discussed the spread of COVID-19. Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY – State auditor John Dougall released a report Wednesday showing several problems with the Utah response to COVID-19

The audit found Utah did not prepare for a pandemic like it has done for other emergencies such as earthquakes. 

Auditor Dougall acknowledges that it would be impossible to prepare specifically for a COVID-19 pandemic. However, he argued more could have been done. 

“Especially given the fact that we’ve had certain warning signs: MERS, SARS, Zika, Ebola, [and] swine flu, different things that could have turned into a pandemic. There was a report in 2007 raising concerns to the governor at the time of PPE constraints in a pandemic,” Dougall said in an interview with KSL NewsRadio. 

Another area of concern was the failure to set up a Unified Command of the Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety before March. 

“As a result…not everyone was necessarily pulling in the same direction,” Dougall said. “There was lots of hurdles in the early stages of getting folks generally going in a unified path of how to approach and tackle this pandemic.” 

As for Utah’s controversial $800,000 order of hydroxychloroquine, Dougall did not find that the state was overcharged, as pharmacists and others noted prices were higher for the drug due to increased demand. He was also not surprised that Utah wanted a stockpile of a potential life-saving medication.

However, it’s unclear just who ordered it when and who had the authority to do so. 

Dougall noted that there were disagreements among senior health department officials about buying an unproven treatment, and he feels more voices in the room would have helped Governor Gary Herbert make a better decision. 

“There was a miscommunication about going about [getting] it, who was really authorizing it, and this is one of those circumstances where, clearly, medical professionals had a disagreement. We think it would have been good for a more robust debate about the merits and drawbacks of hydroxychloroquine,” Dougall said. 

Another area where Utah fell down, according to the auditors, was in how it paid Test Utah for widespread COVID-19 testing. 

Dougall said the state contacted several places to see if they could perform large-scale testing before choosing the Silicon Slopes initiative. 

Nomi Health, who spearheaded the initiative, was paid a flat fee of $7.6 million in anticipation of performing 3,000 tests a day. But the number of tests administered remained far below expectations, raising the price from $44 a test to $235 a test. 

“The state didn’t have a good strategy to ramp up testing, get enough people to get in to get that testing. And, so, the actual cost for the test was well above market,” Dougall said. 

Utah ended up extending the contract as testing went up, eventually getting a lower cost contract.

Utah was also criticized for how it handled the Healthy Together app, an app that was intended to do contact tracing. 

Dougall said Utahns are not naturally inclined to like tracking apps, so there was little buy-in from the public. 

The app itself began malfunctioning. 

Auditors also found that the state was in such a rush to get the app out, it most likely overlooked other alternatives that could have been cheaper and/or more reliable. 

The Governor’s Office responded to the report, agreeing that better communication was needed and that the Unified Command should have been put together sooner. 

Chief of Staff Justin Harding also pushed back on the lack of PPE, arguing that states have limited funds and must use them wisely. 

He also pushed back on criticism that Governor Herbert and Lt. Governor Spencer Cox had too close a relationship with Silicon Slopes companies, and whether that led to several no-bid contracts. 

“We want to be clear that any such relationships did not influence the award of contracts. The review of which contract should be awarded to which entities was performed by staff members who exercised independent judgment in making recommendations about contract awards,” Hardin wrote.