Alumni Feature - Andy Larsen ’08
Andy Larsen is a 2008 Waterford graduate and a lifelong Utah resident who has been writing about the Utah Jazz and NBA since 2013; first at SLC Hoops, then KSL.com, and currently for the Salt Lake Tribune. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Westminster College in 2012. Since the cancellation of the NBA Season, Andy has been writing about the COVID-19 pandemic for the Salt Lake Tribune. When he isn’t writing Andy enjoys playing soccer, tennis and chess.
Ann McCoy, Director of the Waterford Fund and Alumni Relations interviews Andy Larsen ’08 about his passion for sports and statistics, the current COVID-19 pandemic in Utah and his time at Waterford.
Where did your passion for sports and statistics begin?
It 100% started at Waterford. I was in Mr. Dolbin’s math class in 9th grade and he asked us to work on a project during Winter term. Students had to research a topic with a mathematical point of view. I had been grounded from using the computer, with the exception of doing homework. My grand, mischievous idea was to do the research project and relate it to the sports I love as a way to stay connected. I ended up studying major league baseball pitching and learned how to combine sports with statistics throughout that experience. After that project, Waterford faculty members continued to be influential in cultivating my passion for statistics and sports and continually pushed me forward.
Normally you write about basketball, correct?
Yes, I normally write about the Utah Jazz for the Salt Lake Tribune. Having an analytical focus on what happens on the court definitely helped me get my first job at Salt City Hoops. Everyone knows about statistics and sports, but there are clever ways to look at it beyond the pale: I try to really dig into what’s happening with the players and the team overall. Are they working well together? How much should they be getting paid? Questions like that. I still rely on statistical analysis day-to-day, but have since added the other foundations of reporting to my beat writing, like developing relationships within the Jazz.
Since the NBA Season was cancelled you’ve been writing primarily about COVID-19. What has the data shown so far?
My primary focus has been how COVID-19 is affecting our state in comparison with other states. I analyze data from across the country to tell the story behind the numbers. Sometimes conditions can vary from state to state and even from county to county. We saw that in Summit County, which was one of the hardest hit and landed in the top 10 in the country in terms of number of cases early in the pandemic. I’ve also written articles why we’re faring better than other states, how Utah is performing in terms of social distancing, and the difficulties of modeling the pandemic.
Do you feel like Utah is taking the right approach?
Yes and no. Clearly, we’re doing something right because we are ranked 46th in deaths per capita, but the data says that Utah is below average in how we’re reducing social mobility. Again, it’s interesting how things change in a county by county level. Summit County did very well after the early hit, took it seriously and have been able to pull out of it. Some of the more suburban counties haven’t done as well as we’d like, especially early last week, but even those counties have started to flatten the curve and slow the trend as well.
Have rural communities been hit in Utah?
We are seeing that it has started hitting rural communities harder. The difficulty is that rural communities are tight knit and depend on the services right around them, so if the virus starts spreading it can be hard to stop it. Park City is an example of that. When people think of Park City they don’t necessarily think “rural” but when the number of cases was disproportionately high, and Summit County officials said that it was hitting every part of the county including the rural areas. We also saw this as the virus started spreading quickly in the Navajo Nation.
In the article mentioned above, you said that so far Utahns are faring better than the rest of the United States during this crisis. Why is that?
Utah has about ⅓ fewer people over 65, which removes a significant amount of the most severe cases. They also tend to have fewer pre-existing conditions. For example, the number of Utah residents who die from heart disease is fewer compared to the number of most Americans.
Do you think that Utah’s peak will be different from other states?
Every community will hit their peak at different times, not just states. Summit County has already peaked. We saw the rush of cases but their social distancing has been working. We can’t say the same thing for Salt Lake County unfortunately. During the next few weeks we’ll continue to see this evolve in unpredictable ways. Right now, New York City is at a plateau but there are a number of American cities that are vulnerable. New Orleans has peaked most likely, but Philadelphia and Boston are ramping up to peak in the next couple of weeks. It only takes one person or one super spreader event to change everything in a community.
How quickly do you think things can get back to normal?
Returning to normality would be more possible if we had the testing and tracing capabilities and could keep a very watchful eye on those coming in and leaving our communities. The lack of testing is an issue, and we’re only making very rough estimates on how many people have already had it. We don’t know any of that yet. We could open up parts of the country sooner rather than later if the test, trace, and contain strategy were built up to be more effective. Regardless, people will have different views on when things should reopen. Those in business will have a different perspective than an epidemiologist. We have to ask ourselves how valuable lives are.
What do you think of the local and national government response?
Government response makes a huge impact in terms of how long the pandemic will last, and so far there are mixed results and I’m not feeling 100% confident. The biggest initial failure was in the lack of testing. The CDC rejected the World Health Organization’s test to create one of their own, and theirs didn’t work initially, which slowed the number of tests available locally. Governments shut down cities like New York City and New Orleans much too slowly; Mardi Gras celebrations still happened and should not have. Things changed when prominent people like Rudy Gobert tested positive on March 11th. That opened people’s eyes to what was happening, and I think there have been very positive steps since that time to reduce exposure.
Do you see any silver linings?
There’s a lot of fantastic journalism happening around the country right now, and people are reading it and paying attention to what is happening in the world. I’m glad to be a part of it. I learned it all at Waterford; how to read a study, dig into it and write about it. I didn’t realize when I was a student how integral all of my classes would be for my career.
Advice for our athletes or seniors?
This pandemic is robbing our athletes and seniors of something particularly valuable: some of the best opportunities for memories that they’ll experience in their lifetime. I’ll never forget what happened during my spring sports, nor during the final months of my senior year. But not all is lost. I’d advise our seniors and athletes to be very intentional about making memories despite this thing: get your group of friends together for a Zoom hangout. Widen your social circle, invite someone you normally wouldn’t. Find ways to communicate as a team, or as a class. And when we are able to get together after this ends, play pickup games, go on adventures. We can recreate what was lost, and the pandemic can strengthen our bonds rather than weaken them.