Former skeptic has a message for Utahns who think they don’t need the COVID-19 vaccine

Family nurse practitioner Aaron Hartle wasn’t in any hurry to get vaccinated against COVID-19, even though he treated patients in his Springville clinic who were hospitalized by the deadly virus. It even killed one of his patients.

But too much was still unknown about the vaccines, he believed, and besides, he was too healthy to have to worry.

That all changed in June after COVID-19 sent Hartle repeatedly to the emergency room before he finally ended up in the hospital for a week. Back at home in Cedar Hills, the 45-year-old former triathlete and father of five — three of whom caught the virus from him — remains on oxygen and tires easily as he talks about an ordeal that that didn’t need to happen.

In a voice strained from exertion on Monday, Hartle offers a message for other Utahns who think they don’t need the shots.

“It’s OK to be a little bit unsure. It’s OK to be a little bit worried about it,” he said. “Because in the long run, protecting yourself will be so much better. Even though you may not think, like me, that you will get very sick, it can happen. It’s out there and it can be prevented. It just takes a little courage to stand up and get it done.”

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Hartle said he plans to be vaccinated once he gets the go ahead from his doctors. As a health care provider, he was among the first in the state to be offered a shot last December. But “worry crept in,” Hartle said, just as it did when leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were vaccinated the following month.

“We have prayed often for this literal godsend,” President Russell M. Nelson said in a message published on his Facebook and Instagram accounts after he was photographed getting a first dose of vaccine from a Salt Lake County Health Department staffer.

Nurse practitioner Aaron Hartle leaves Utah Valley Hospital in Provo after being released on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Hartle was hospitalized with COVID-19 after turning down the vaccine and now wants to urge others to get the shots. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Hartle said he was almost persuaded to do the same.

“When President Nelson got his shot and told us all to make our own decision, honestly, I did pray about it,” he said. “I felt OK about getting the shots. Then I let worry and stress over it change my mind ... there were a few times, actually, over the last six months where I had thoughts, ‘Maybe I should.’”

But Hartle didn’t offer COVID-19 vaccinations at his clinic, telling patients that he wanted to wait and see what the long-term effects would be first. Those who were still interested had to go to a nearby pharmacy to get the shots.

Hartle said he “absolutely” has second thoughts about the advice he offered.

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A graduate of Brigham Young University who attended the University of Utah and George Washington University, completing a doctor of nursing practice program, Hartle said he is not opposed to vaccinations and gets a flu shot annually, but believed the research on the coronavirus vaccines “was lacking a little bit.”

Politics didn’t color his view of the vaccine, he said.

“I’m not sure that politics ever played much of an effect for me, necessarily. I had always figured the scientists were doing the best that they could to prevent all this. I just wasn’t sure the science was quite ready,” Hartle said, adding he “didn’t care if it was (President Joe) Biden or (former President Donald) Trump or whoever” in the White House.

That concern combined with his confidence that regular hikes and a “good set of lungs” meant that if he did get COVID-19, he “would easily be able to recover quickly. I figured then that the devil I knew was better than the one I didn’t know. A lot of people were getting COVID and getting better and that’s how it would happen to me.”

Instead, Hartle has spent the last two weeks feeling fatigued, struggling to breathe, fighting fevers and losing his sense of taste. His wife, Lori, said there were times when she didn’t think he would make it. Thankfully, she said, only one of the three children who tested positive for the virus showed any symptoms, and those were mild.

Nurse practitioner Aaron Hartle is wheeled out of Utah Valley Hospital by Haley Dunn after being released in Provo on Sunday, July 11, 2021. Hartle was hospitalized with COVID-19 after turning down the vaccine and now wants to urge others to get the shots. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Hartle isn’t sure where he caught the virus, but said it may have been at the Night Lights Lantern Festival at the Utah Motorsports Campus in Grantsville on June 19, about a week before his symptoms started. The outdoor event was crowded, he said, and almost no one wore masks, including his family.

“It did make us nervous when we showed up and saw so many people,” he said. When he started feeling “extremely tired” days later, Hartle said he didn’t suspect the coronavirus and instead tested himself for mononucleosis. It took another four days before he developed aches and a fever and realized he might have COVID-19.

After testing positive, he got sicker and sicker, visiting the emergency room several times because he could barely breathe and finally being admitted to the hospital where he stayed a week. A day after being discharged, Hartle recalled times when he “would start coughing and not be able to breathe. It was really scary.”

The experience was also a sobering reminder of the need for COVID-19 vaccinations. Breakthrough cases of the virus are almost always mild in people who are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose.

An emergency room doctor made that clear during one of his visits over the July 4th holiday weekend.

“He said, ‘Well, you’ve got a really bad case here. You should have been vaccinated. I hope you didn’t get anybody else sick.’ That made me feel pretty bad,” Hartle said. He’d already contacted the patients and others, including church members, he’d seen before testing positive for COVID-19. None became ill, Hartle said.

Although he faces long-term lung problems as well as the financial effects of not being able to treat patients during what could be a prolonged recovery, Hartle said he’s already been able to encourage his mother and older brother to get vaccinated.

Lori Hartle said she is trying to sort out how she feels about getting the shots after her husband’s illness.

“That is a tricky question. One would think that I would run out and go get the vaccine myself. We’re very religious people and having watched him go through this has been heartbreaking,” she said, calling it “something to take to prayer and see if it’s right for me. I don’t know what my choice is yet. That’s something I’m still thinking about.”