Is the COVID-19 pandemic over? Utah moving from emergency to endemic phase

Gov. Spencer Cox announced Friday Utah is on track to start treating COVID-19 like the flu or other seasonal respiratory diseases by March 31, stopping just short of declaring an end to the pandemic that’s now entering a third year.

“Let me be clear that this is not the end of COVID,” the governor said during a news conference at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City outlining the Utah Department of Health’s plans to discontinue testing for all but the most vulnerable Utahns as well as daily reports on the spread of the virus.

“As the state, we are not packing up and heading home. We will continue to see cases and outbreaks and hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths. But it does mean we are adapting to how we respond to these things. There is still work to be done,” Cox said.

It’s a transition from “an emergency posture and into a manageable risk model,” where it’s up to Utahns to decide for themselves whether they need to wear a mask, social distance or get vaccinated, he said, suggesting that for some at least, it’s time to be more relaxed.

“There are a whole bunch of people who are unvaccinated and unboosted and at high risk who should take this disease much more seriously. There are also a whole bunch of people in our state who are vaccinated and boosted and young and at low risk who could stand to take this disease a lot less seriously,” the governor said.

Over the next six weeks, he said the virus testing and treatment now provided by the state health department will shift to private health care systems. COVID-19 vaccinations and monitoring will continue to be handled by the public health agency, and testing and other supplies will be stockpiled in case of a future outbreak.

The science supports the move, Cox said, citing reliance on testing wastewater for the virus and other measures after he urged most Utahns to skip testing if they show symptoms. Utah’s case counts have dropped since a January surge fueled by the omicron variant, along with hospitalizations, but deaths remain high.

“We know where this is going. We know what the trends are. And if it doesn’t, we have the ability to adjust. This idea that we have to get stuck in some crazy situation forever is very, very unscientific,” the Republican leader said, noting other states, including those led by Democrats, are taking similar actions.

Utahns are ready for what would be the endemic phase of COVID-19, he said.

“As we’re moving on to this new phase of the pandemic response, as we’re moving away from a pandemic response, most Americans, most Utahns, are ready to be done with this,” the governor said, urging Utahns to be respectful of those who continue to wear masks and take other precautions against the virus.

This story will be updated.