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Governor's News Conference

September 30, 2021

"Billions and billions and billions of gallons were saved this year because people cut back on their watering and on waste and that's made it possible so that, if we do have drought conditions extending until next year, we will have drinking water available." Governor Cox

NARRATOR: PBS Utah presents the Governor's monthly news conference, an exchange between Utah reporters and Governor Spencer Cox.

GOVERNOR COX: Welcome ladies and gentlemen. It's great to be with you again. It's good to see all of you. You're multiplying. It's nice to have so many of you here in studio and, for those that are remote, we welcome you, too.

I'm going to spend just a little bit of time, starting off talking about where we are with the Delta surge of the coronavirus and we'll talk a little bit about testing and then share a little drought update and then we'll open it up for questions.

So, some good news. Over the last 14 days, our positive tests are down about 20% in the state and so there are good indicators that we have summited the peak of the Delta variant and are starting down the other side. That's welcome news, obviously, for our hospitals and our frontline workers who have just been slammed over the past few weeks. The hospitalizations are starting to come down, as well. That's a lagging indicator and, of course, fatalities will follow. 

I want to talk a little bit about testing. Over the past several months, we have, of course, as the surges happen, we've seen a significant increase in testing demand. Now, on June 1st, our Department of Health teams were conducting just over 7,400 tests. If you fast forward to September 21st, we conducted more than 19,000 tests on that day. This increase led to a significant demand and unfortunately long waits at many of our sites and, quite frankly, we fell short of expectations in meeting this demand. Part of that change was that in the last wave, in the December and January waves of the virus, other testing sites were doing a great deal of testing, specifically Intermountain. Intermountain was doing about half the testing in our state during the first couple of waves of the pandemic.

However, with the Delta variant and because, as we talked before, because of the lack of personnel that we have in our hospital, specifically nurses, they had to pull their nurses from those sites into the hospitals, which meant that they couldn't test at the rate they were testing before and so the state had to pick up that slack, and I'm pleased to report, I put that challenge to our Department of Health as we were again getting reports of wait times that were sometimes upwards of an hour or more and I challenged them to make improvements to this process and I want to report what has happened over the past month.

We added staff to our testing teams. So, we added more than 238 new staff to the Department of Health and Test Utah teams. In June, we had seven mobile test sites. Today, we have 16. We expanded locations and hours of operation, 12 additional sites were added over the course of the past month. Our community testing sites added 169 additional testing hours each week, and sites increased hours of operations and others added additional days that they were open to meet these needs. We also made some operational changes. Moving from an appointment model to a walkup model helped to disperse the demand across all testing locations and I'm pleased to report that the results have been encouraging. The last week, the longest wait time reported at these locations was 20 minutes and most were waiting less than five minutes. So, we feel much better about where we are now with testing than where we are back then.

I'm also pleased to report that next Monday, we will begin piloting a test to travel program. With the holidays approaching, we know that Utah residents are going to want to resume traveling. Many have already resumed traveling and, whether it's for leisure or to visit loved ones or for business, many locations across the globe are putting more and more testing restrictions on travelers. So, even for vaccinated travelers, they're requiring tests, usually within 72 hours, sometimes within 24 hours, and we want to make it as easy as possible for Utahans who are traveling to get those tests before they leave so that they don't get held up or stuck at airports or in their country of destination.

So, to help facilitate this, our testing site at the Cannon Health Building will have a dedicated testing lane specifically for travelers. This location will have rapid antigen, rapid PCR, and regular PCR available for travelers. These are the tests that are widely required by certain locations for traveler entry and travelers will be responsible to know the type of test that is required where they are traveling. Our test sites can’t be responsible to know what's required at every destination everywhere in the world. That's up to the traveler to know what kind of tests that they need.

These tests will be free to Utah residents and will be available for a fee to non-Utah residents. So, people that travel from other countries to Utah that need a test to get back to wherever they're headed can go to this dedicated traveler lane and get a test. But they will have to pay for that test.

Now, I want to be clear that travelers can still go to established sites throughout the state to get tested before traveling. Information on those locations is available at coronavirus.utah.gov. We're going to try this out. We're going to test it for a little while and evaluate the demand and effectiveness of this program over a two-week period and we may choose to expand this project into other areas of the state depending on what we learn.

So, again, if the country will allow a rapid antigen test, we can have those results in 15 minutes for people. If they require a PCR test, which are the more accurate, we will have a prioritized rapid PCR test that will get that result back as soon as we possibly can in less than 24 hours and then a regular PCR test that will take about 24 hours to process. So, that's the plan for travelers and, again, that's at the Cannon Health Building here in Salt Lake. All of those locations will be available, again, at coronavirus.utah.gov.

Another announcement, again, we talked about vaccines. We encourage vaccines. You will hear us always, always, always talk about the importance of the vaccine. It still remains the most effective way to protect yourself, to protect your family, to protect your community from getting the disease in the first place and from hospitalization or death if you do get the disease. We have made some great strides here in Utah. Nearly 1.9. people now have received at least one dose of the vaccine. 75.2% of Utah adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine. But we still have far too many who have not received the vaccine and we need our partners in the business community to help.

We recognize all of those in the business community who are working to help get their employees vaccinated, to get customers and consumers vaccinated, and we're grateful for their efforts. I support and applaud them and I'm happy to announce that PEHP, which is a public employee health plan, will soon be offering financial incentives to state employees and their family members to get vaccinated, so this is a forward-looking incentive for those that are not vaccinated yet.

These incentives will include, by the way, these will begin, these are first state PHP employees. The incentives will include $100 for newly vaccinated individuals between the ages of 12 to 49. So, that again, $100 for newly vaccinated individuals between the ages of 12 to 49. $250 for newly vaccinated individuals that are 50 or over and $50 for those who get a booster or are eligible to get a booster. These incentives, plus the administrative leave time that I've already approved will hopefully provide an added push to have all of our 23,000 state employees and their loved ones vaccinated and that new program will begin on October 1st. So, will begin later this week.

Now, finally, I would like to just talk a little bit about the drought before we open it up to questions. We have been the beneficiaries of some incredible monsoonal moisture over the past two months that has significantly increased the soil content, the moisture in our soil content. And I want to state that, in June, the moisture content in our soil was at the lowest in our recorded history, as low as we have ever recorded and, now, because of those rains, we're actually at average, which is huge.

While that doesn't impact our reservoirs right now, it will impact our reservoirs next spring. That means, when snow does come, it will actually flow into our reservoirs instead of going straight into the ground. That's what happened last year. Because we had drought conditions in the fall, we had very little snow and what little snow we had, because of the moisture content was so low, it went straight into the ground. So, this will certainly help us with spring runoff.

The fact that we did have monsoons show up this year has helped. Again, it didn't do much to fill up our reservoirs that were falling quickly. But it helped reduce the wildfire risk and helped our lawns be a little greener towards the end of this and that's where I really want to focus and thank Utahans. This is where we did make a difference. Because this was the worst drought year in our state's recorded history, we expected that our reservoir capacity would be at the lowest it's ever been. The good news is it's not the lowest it's ever been. It's close. But, it's not the lowest it's ever been.

We are below 50% statewide average and the only reason that is the case is because people really listened and people helped and people used much, much less water. Billions and billions and billions of gallons were saved this year because people cut back on their watering and on waste and that's made it possible so that, if we do have drought conditions extending until next year, we will have drinking water available. That's really good news.

Now, again, we're very hopeful that we won't have serious drought conditions heading into next year. But, even if we have above average snow pack, it's going to take a few years to replenish the water that has been lost during this drought. So, we still have a long way to go. But I can tell you that we're all breathing a little bit easier now than we were just two months ago and that's because people really sacrificed and made a difference and, that being said, we are continuing to aggressively plan for a future where we do have less water and we have more people. We will be working closely with the legislature.

We still have major issues, including those surrounding the Great Salt Lake, making sure that that ecosystem can thrive and that we are getting water to the end of the road there. Obviously, there, there are concerns with the water that we share in the Colorado River Basin with the upper basin states and the lower basin states and the hydrology of that river and those negotiations will continue into the future.

But, very likely that every state in that basin, and it's not just states, it's actually two countries. Mexico has water rights on that river, as well. That we will all likely see decreases as we move forward and as those negotiations continue and so it's incumbent on all of us to continue to find ways to conserve water and working closely to be able to store more water as well, working with our federal partners and our state and local partners who are involved in those decisions. And, with that, we would love to open it up now for questions.

SONJA HUSON, KUER: That designated travel test lane in the one test site in Salt Lake City, if those tests are available in sites throughout the state, why is making a designated lane important? Why is that something you're doing?

GOVERNOR COX: So, the tests are available. But, all of those tests aren't available in every testing location. So, some test sites do have rapid antigen tests, some sites have the PCR test. The reason for this and what we're hearing and maybe some of you have traveled and seen that is it can be very confusing for the traveler to know which one they're supposed to get.

These terms, PCR and antigen tests, these are terms that none of us knew anything about a year and a half ago and so that's been a struggle for people. It's also been a struggle for them to find a site that will be recognized by the country of origin. So, even if they have the test you need, the country might not recognize that as a partner site.

So, one of the things we're going to try to do also is work with these countries to make sure that they will recognize our tests and some of them have a partner where you have to go to a Walgreens and maybe only one Walgreens here. We've heard of people who have had to go, who've said that they could only find a testing site or a testing location, they've had to go to Las Vegas to get tested and then come back and get on an airplane and so what we're trying to do is make it as easy as possible for people to travel, to have it all in one location that isn't far from the airport. So, they can come here and get that done and get on their way as quickly as possible and, again, to make it free to people.

There are sites that are requiring you to take a certain test. Travelers are having to pay $100 to $200 per ticket to do that which means that people who aren't wealthy aren't going to be able to travel and so we're going to try to ease that burden on travelers as much as possible.

HAILEY HENDRICKS, ABC4 UTAH: Now, for domestic travelers, some states do require negative COVID test or you have to show that you're fully vaccinated. Do you foresee Utah doing something similar to that for people coming into the state?

GOVERNOR COX: I don't foresee Utah doing something similar to that. I think that what we'll do is, as a nation, we'll make most of those decisions. Now, Hawaii and others are in a little different situation than that, but we do have requirements for travelers coming into the United States to have some of those tests and that's why we also wanted to make this available for foreign travelers so that they could take advantage of it, come and get a test to return to their country of origin.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, the legislature has been considering whether to pursue legislation to block government vaccine mandates. You signed onto that letter. But some have also asked the legislature to block businesses from issuing vaccine mandates, a private company doing that. Where do you stand on that?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah, thanks. Thanks, Ben. We've been very clear on this, the Lieutenant Governor and I, you'll remember a couple months ago we had a conversation with you all where we said that we support businesses in their decisions on whether or not to require vaccines and I continue to do that. I know that position can be maddening to some and that's fine. But, I'm a huge believer in free markets and a mandate not to allow businesses to have mandates is a mandate in and of itself and its government still telling businesses what what they can and can't do and I'm opposed to that. I think the businesses should be able to have a mandate. We know the Utah Jazz recently said that they're going to require either a test or a vaccine and that's their right to do so and we applaud the marketplace making those decisions.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: So, if the legislature pursues a bill and it gets to your desk, is it dead on arrival?

GOVERNOR COX: Yes.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: All right. 

BRYAN SCHOTT, SALT LAKE TRIBUNE:  What is the extra cost for incentivizing those vaccines for PEHP subscribers and wouldn't it be easier to do something like Delta did where they just raised premiums on those who did not get vaccinated and where is the money coming from to pay for this?

GOVERNOR COX: Sure, so, ultimately, I don't control PHP. I'm kind of making this announcement on behalf of them and so I think that that's something that a lot of businesses and employers will be looking at. What Delta did was they said, "Look, we've looked at the numbers. We know how much it costs to be hospitalized with COVID and so we can do the math and we can look at those ratios." Again, that's what they do best, right?

They have people that are really good at math that can figure out what it's going to cost them. That's how insurance companies stay in business and what they've said is we're going to raise premiums for those who are not. That's what Delta decided to do. 

We see that in, we've had things like that for years. If you smoke and you try to buy life insurance, you're going to pay a lot more for life insurance because your risks are so much higher. I suspect that we will see more of that from employers and insurance companies down the road. For now, they have decided that they want to use this approach to try to encourage more people to get vaccinated.

As far as the cost, I don't have those in front of me. So, I'm just working off of memory, Brian. But it depends on how many take advantage of it, right? And so, they're not sure how many will take advantage of it. I think they said that their best estimate would be that it would cost about $3.9 million to fund this. So, they can use their reserves for this. But, they believe, again, the demographers that are making these calculations, that the savings in hospitalizations will pay for it so that the program itself will self-contain, will pay for it.

I was talking to someone. I'm trying to remember. Oh, I think it was a workers' compensation fund who, we were just having a conversation about what it costs for hospitalizations and they had had a few claims, some workers' comp claims that they had seen, and there were, I think, three and one of them was $500,000 and one of them was a million dollars. That's how much it costs for a serious ICU intubated patient who was in the ICU for 30, 40 days, upwards of a million dollars. I remember seeing some data that the average hospitalization for COVID, this may be in the state of Utah, but it may have been nationally, was about $50,000. And so, again, if for no other reason, if you're looking for, if you don't believe in vaccines, if for nothing else, there's a huge financial incentive to get vaccinated, to avoid those incredible hospital bills that people are paying who are not vaccinated and are in the hospital right now.

So, that's the theory behind this is that it will pay for itself in reduced hospitalizations amongst those who are not vaccinating, which is also why they have a larger incentive for those who are older just because the mortality rate is higher with those groups.

REPORTER: Okay, we'd like to go to a remote reporter. Sean with The Spectrum, go ahead with your question.

SEAN HEMMERSMEIR, THE SPECTRUM: Hi, you mentioned the Colorado River Basin and there was a shortage declared and, due to this shortage and the record lows at Lake Powell, certain advocates have been against the Lake Powell Pipeline Project from proceeding. So, do you support the Lake Powell Pipeline Project and kind of what's your opinion on that, especially with the West's drought conditions?

GOVERNOR COX: Sure, yeah, yeah. So, I've been very supportive of the Lake Powell Pipeline and the importance of getting water, again, that belongs to the state of Utah to that area. Important to note that the way that that works is that water comes from Flaming Gorge. That's where the water right actually is. Water comes from Flaming Gorge into Lake Powell and then it's transferred through the pipeline to Washington County. That being said, everyone has to recognize the reality of where we are and so those discussions are ongoing. Those discussions, even under the Trump administration, we were told that we had to work with our partner states to find ways to accommodate that project and others that we're looking at here in the state of Utah. Those discussions are happening right now and they will continue.

So, we're very realistic. Our eyes are wide open about what the hydrology of the river looks like and we're also working with those states on ways to improve the hydrology of the river. There are lots of things we can do. One of the unfortunate parts about what's happened is we have invasive species of plants and vegetation that have grown up along all of the tributaries that feed into thar that suck water out of that system.

Of course, we have dryer, we have less snow pack, the climate is warming. All of those things are impacting this and so, it's looking at, first of all, what is the reality of the hydrology? And, second of all, what can we do to improve the hydrology of the river? And are there projects that we can work on together as states to benefit all of us?

Because, again, it hurts those upstream. It hurts those downstream. We're seeing that. It's not just in Utah. Arizona farmers have had to cut back. California has the best deal in this and even they're starting to feel it and having to cut back a little bit at the lower end of the scale and not to mention the energy production. 

We're reaching levels right now in both Lake Powell and Lake Mead where we're not sure how low it can get and still be able to produce electricity, which is low cost, cheap electricity that is used to power the grid. So, those are very, very big concerns that we will be working on together. The Lake Powell Pipeline is one piece of that, one small piece of that, but it is a piece of it and so those conversations will continue going forward.

REPORTER: Quick question in studio.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, what are your plans if the drought does continue next year and we have a similar situation that we had this year?

GOVERNOR COX: Yes, so our plans are that we're working closely with the legislature. I think you'll see several bills coming out that are conservation related bills and making sure that that we're doing more. I mentioned this, I spoke at the League of Cities and Towns yesterday, speaking to mayors and county commissions, and my plea to them was that we need every city to go back and look at their policies on the books. It's one thing not to require xeriscaping or low water use landscaping. It's another thing to make them illegal and we have many communities where it's actually illegal to not put grass in, to have a water-wise landscaping, which is just crazy to me and so that can't happen. That's the first step.

The second thing we're doing right now is we're working with farmers and ranchers. We have a program in place. It's a small program. We will be expanding it to help incentivize changes to much more water efficient crops and water systems. So, replacing the old inefficient water systems with much better ones that produce a higher yield and use much less water.

We have some pilot programs that are going on with Utah State and Southern Utah University, where they have been testing out many of these different water-wise crops, as well as water efficient mechanisms and pipe that that will reduce the amount of water use. So, that's the second piece of this.

And then the third piece, Ben, is we are working very closely with private land owners and our Water Conservancy Districts, as well as our federal partners on the high priority water storage projects in our state. So, that means additional reservoirs for the growth that is coming and that we're anticipating in the future and recharging aquifers. The great project down around Cedar City, where they have been working to recharge their aquifers over the past couple of years and we're seeing incredible results there. Looking at water reuse and how we can use technology that's available today to reuse water in different ways to, again, take advantage of the water that we have here.

REPORTER: Okay, that's all the time we have right now for our television broadcast. Join us back here next month for the Governor's monthly news conference.

NARRATOR: This has been the Governor's monthly news conference. For transcripts, full video, and more information visit PBSutah.org/governor.

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