Utah may be running out of people who are ready to get the COVID-19 shots even though less than a third of the state is fully vaccinated against the deadly virus.
A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 7% of registered voters in Utah remain in a wait-and-see mode about the vaccine, the same number as a month ago, Another 10% say they’re in no particular rush, down slightly.
That means despite public health campaigns urging Utahns to “take their shot” against the coronavirus so they can return to a more normal life, some 17% of Utahns apparently are still hesitating, compared to 20% in March and 26% in February.
While two-thirds of Utahns, 67%, are taking the vaccination message to heart saying they’re either already vaccinated or getting the shot as soon as possible, 13% will never get the shots and 2% aren’t sure how they feel, according to the poll.
Added up, the poll suggests Utah may be falling short of the numbers needed to stop the spread of the virus. Experts say so-called herd immunity requires at least 70% of the entire population to be immunized against COVID-19, already a tough task in one of the youngest states in the country.
The adults who fall into the never or not sure categories are split over why. Some 21% say they’re worried about side effects, 27% believe it’s not necessary, 24% say they don’t trust vaccines, 2% cite religious reasons and 26% had a list of other reasons, including fears of the government trying to take away personal freedoms.
The poll, conducted of 1,000 registered voters in Utah April 30-May 6 for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen, has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
The results come as vaccination locations around the state often struggle to stay busy, especially in rural areas. Even in the Salt Lake area, where residents anxious for the shots once crashed online appointment sites, walk-ins are increasingly accepted.
The Utah Department of Health wasn’t counting on the coronavirus vaccine supply exceeding demand so soon.
“It’s come a little bit earlier than we anticipated. We thought the shift in supply and demand would have happened maybe toward the end of May. Now that it’s happening earlier, maybe there’s more hesitancy than we anticipated, but it’s hard to say,” Rich Lakin, the department’s immunization director, said.
Data collected by the state health department between Feb. 1 and May 1 show only three local health departments — Salt Lake, Davis and Weber-Morgan — where more than 80% of the residents who haven’t been vaccinated say they’re likely or very likely to get the shots.
In most of the other local health departments, those numbers are around 60% to 70%, but in two, San Juan and TriCounty, which serves Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties, only around half of those who have not been vaccinated say they’re likely or very likely to do so.
The most common barriers to vaccination cited by Utahns in the state health department survey were concern over side effects, cost and how quickly the vaccines were developed, along general opposition to vaccinations and the beliefs that COVID-19 is not a serious problem or a risk to their community,
Lakin sees Utahns 30 and younger as likely responsible for much of the declining interest.
“I think they’ve seen most of the cases occur in the older population,” he said, although there are now more younger Utahns being hit hard by the virus because they’re not getting vaccinated at the same rate. Just 26.4% of Utahns 16-29 years old are fully vaccinated, compared to just under 55% of those 50-59.
Vaccination rates are even higher among Utahns 60 and older. It’s been at least two weeks since their vaccine final dose for nearly 68% of residents 60-69 years old; more than 80% of those 70-79; and nearly 77% off those 80 and older.
But less than 22% of Utahns are over 60 years old, while those 16-29 make up 30% of the population. The federal government just approved the Pfizer vaccine, already able to be given to 16- and 17-year olds, for use by adolescents as young as 12.
Lakin said the state is combating hesitancy by making it easier to get a shot.
“We’re trying to work on getting the vaccines to the people instead of the people going to the vaccines,” he said. That means supplying doses to family doctors, local clinics and even pop-up sites at businesses, churches and other organizations rather than focusing on mass vaccination sites.
Gov. Spencer Cox announced that shift in late April, saying he wants to take away any excuses for not being vaccinated. But the governor has stopped short of declaring the state’s vaccination goals have run into a roadblock.
“Right now, we’re not to the point where vaccine hesitancy is the problem,” Cox told reporters during his weekly briefing on the state’s efforts against the virus. “There’s still a lot of people that are willing to get the vaccine. They just haven’t gotten it yet. It’s mostly a matter of convenience for them.”
Misinformation about the vaccine is also an issue, he said.
“This has been a constant battle throughout this, not just with vaccines — with the virus itself, with testing, with masks,” the governor said. “There are always people out there who are sharing bad information, who are bad actors, who are purposely trying to sow division, and people who just skeptical.”
A recent YouTube video showed a giant syringe labeled “Medical Tyranny” being burned in effigy in Moroni. Eric Moutsos, a longtime opponent of COVID-19 restrictions, says on the video, “when you start coercing people, when you start having people in fear all the time, this is going to be the only way out, it’s wrong.”
Cox said Utahns should turn to their doctors for advice rather than social media.
“Look, there are people that will never get the vaccine and we understand that. We’re not going to make them get the vaccine. But there are a lot of people who are rightly curious and trying to get good information,” he said, promising they’ll soon be hearing about the vaccine from more “trusted voices from different communities.”
Last week’s visit by first lady Jill Biden to a pop-up vaccination clinic in Jordan Park organized with the help of Comunidades Unidas, a nonprofit that seeks to empower the Latino community, showcased efforts to reach out to groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
But while more than 38% of white Utahns are fully vaccinated, the numbers are lower across the board for minority residents — just over 22% of Hispanics and Latinos are also fully vaccinated; slightly over 15% of Blacks; nearly 16% of Pacific Islanders; nearly 29% of Asians; and nearly 19% of Native Americans.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the first lady’s message to local leaders and public health providers at the clinic was that “we have to do this together, and that (President) Joe (Biden) is with us, and proud of us, and supports the community.”
Mendenhall said she brought up that “we have a tenacious sense of community in Salt Lake City.” The mayor said relationships between government and underserved communities have been strengthened as a result of dealing with COVID-19.
“Here we are, over a year later, closer than ever,” Mendenhall said, as people started showing up at the park clinic.
Caroline Moreno, equitable access manager for the Salt Lake County Health Department, said demand for COVID-19 vaccines has been declining in Utah and the rest of the nation for the past few weeks. A month ago, a mobile vaccination unit in a supermarket parking lot immediately drew a crowd, she said.
“We would just have people lined up out the door basically. We were having to turn people away because we didn’t have enough vaccine. And now, we can barely get 50-60 people in over the same time period and in similar locations,” Moreno said.
To her, that means the Utahns who want to be vaccinated have gotten their shots “and now we’re moving to that next group of people who are on the fence. Some of the concerns they have are things like, ‘Wow, that vaccine was rushed through.’ They don’t know what it’s about.”
In addition to what Moreno categorized as safety concerns, she said there are deeply rooted issues among minority communities stemming from past medical experiments conducted for decades on African Americans without their consent.
And immigrants who don’t have the proper documentation to be in the country legally can be suspicious that the shots could reveal their status, something that’s not supposed to happen, although Moreno said there are stories about vaccine providers requesting Social Security numbers.
“There’s oftentimes communitywide distrust of the medical field,” she said, for many reasons. “We need to be paying attention to that. They’re real fears.”
The county is teaming up with a growing list of dozens of community partners to help build confidence in the vaccination process, including businesses, churches, neighborhoods and organizations that represent communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with disabilities and other underserved groups.
Those partners understand why some in their community might be reluctant to be vaccinated and can use their connection to change minds, Moreno said.
“Trust is a really, really essential piece of this whole puzzle,” Moreno said, and there’s going to be “higher levels of trust with people from their own community and not us government people who are showing up with flyers. That’s one of the reasons we like to work with our community partners, because they know the messaging that works.”
The Calvary Baptist Church in downtown Salt Lake City has been offering vaccinations in the gym since mid-February, shortly after a member of the predominantly African American congregation, Courtney Isaiah Smith, died from COVID-19 at just 37 years old.
“It was more than I could take,” said Cathy Wolfsfeld, a church member who used her skills as a community health worker to organize the clinic that so far has served about 900 people, including many whites, although “with the minority population being as vulnerable as we are, that was my focus.”
Wolfsfeld said she’s seen less hesitancy to get the vaccine than she expected, but some still need convincing.
So she set up Zoom calls with medical professionals to answer questions, including about “the absurd things about microchips and really, taking your DNA, and all those things that were floating around in the atmosphere. I’m hoping they were put to rest,” along with the idea the vaccine is another experiment on an unsuspecting public.
“We are doing our best to educate. I tell them, ‘Don’t listen to people that are more scared than you are.’ Because there are so many things going on out there that are just so outrageously wrong and that makes people afraid,” Wolfsfeld said. “That’s how we’re going to try get them, is to just educate them. Put their fears to rest.”
For Dr. Emily Spivak, a University of Utah Health infectious diseases physician, vaccine hesitancy reflects the nation’s larger political divide.
“People in this country need to be able to have civil dialogue and talk to each other in a nonjudgmental way on both sides,” Spivak said. “Communication shuts down before you even start talking to somebody because we all sort of judge where the other person is coming from.”
Getting away from “the tone and the anger and all of that” can open up a dialogue about vaccinations, she said, especially if a trusted community member like a family doctor is involved rather than a government official. “People don’t trust the government,” Spivak said.
But she said many doctors see counseling patients about vaccinations as taking too much time out of a visit and “don’t want to do this, not because they don’t care or don’t think it’s important, but because it slows down their business. I mean, it would take a lot of time, especially if somebody’s not willing to do this.”
There is vaccine hesitancy on the right and the left, Spivak said.
“It just shows you how fragmented it is, and how different approaches are probably needed to address the problem,” she said. “I think that just points to, you can’t assume why someone is hesitant when you sit down to talk to them.”
Instead, Spivak said, “you need to ask people what they think or what they know about it and not go into the conversation based on a different community because it’s probably very different place to place. It just makes it much harder to address, I think, because you have to take time to understand.”