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Utah State Senate passes several COVID-19 bills during their first-ever virtual session

FILE: United States and Utah flags flying in the wind in from of the Capitol Building, Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Getty Images

SALT LAKE CITY – The Utah State Senate’s first-ever virtual session had a late start due to a worldwide Cisco Webex outage. Once the Senators switched to a different platform, however, several COVID-19 related bills were passed, though not without some tough questions.

The Utah State Senate voted unanimously in favor of a budget bill that would set aside $108 million of federal COVID-19 stimulus money to help the state deal with the pandemic. The money would go towards things like buying personal protective gear or offering loans to small businesses. This also means payments to schools could be delayed since Utahns are being allowed to file their income taxes later.

A bill to loosen the graduation requirements for students impacted by COVID-19 also passed unanimously, as did a resolution accepting federal COVID-19 relief funds.

Among the other bills, Sen. Ann Millner’s (R-Ogden) that would temporarily waive the one week waiting period for getting unemployment benefits also sailed through.

Senate Bill 3002, known as the “right to try” law, was one of the more controversial bills that passed.

SB3002 builds on Utah’s existing right to try law by expanding legal immunity to doctors who use experimental medications to treat COVID-19 patients, as well as FDA-approved but off-label drugs. Those doctors would have to discuss the risks with their patients.

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers (R-Cedar City) sponsored the bill.

“This simply sets up a process…that allows the physician to use that medication after going through all the traditional protocols and indicating that they feel comfortable recommending and proscribing that medication,” Vickers said.

There were concerns about whether patients who do not speak English would be able to understand the risks of the medication, as well as whether it would protect doctors or nursing homes acting negligently.

Senator Vickers argued the bill does address both those issues. Although it passed with one “no” vote, the bill is expected to be worked on later in the session.

The most contentious bill was Senate Bill 3004, which would create a “Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission to advise and make recommendations to the governor regarding the state’s response to the COVID-19 emergency”.

The advisory committee would work with the governor on a plan to open up Utah’s economy, which has taken a hit because of COVID-19. The recommendations would be only that–recommendations which the governor could ignore.

There had been some controversy about whether the law would override local control.

Senator Gene Davis (D-Salt Lake City) was also among many senators who raised questions about whether “dollars” would be put ahead of people’s health.

Senator Dan Hemmert (R-Orem), who sponsored the bill, disagrees with an either-or scenario.

“I think it is time to start working toward reopening the economy, and this commission is tasked with figuring out a way to do that safely that doesn’t overrule or overlook public health,” Hemmert said.

SB 3004 ultimately passed.

The Utah State Senate also passed several House bills, but not the one which would curb the governor’s powers in an emergency.