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COVID-19 surging again; so what’s Utah’s strategy?

New case counts are trending upward, and hospitals are filling, while many refuse to get vaccinated

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Photo illustration by Alex Cochran and Michelle Budge

The other day, a close friend took a son with a serious health problem to a Wasatch Front hospital. There, she discovered no available beds in the emergency room and, when he was admitted, no place to put him. Nurses were forced to call other hospitals to locate space, which wasn’t easy. 

My friend had discovered what seems almost to be a secret, despite the numbers being broadcast daily. While many people in Utah are acting as if the pandemic is almost over — sports teams are allowing capacity crowds, restaurants are thriving — a new surge is underway.

On Wednesday last week, 574 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Utah, followed by 540 on Thursday. The numbers were the highest since April. 

More importantly, as KSL reported, 77% of the intensive care beds in the state were occupied, putting a strain once again on the health care system. In the 16 referral hospitals — the places best equipped to handle COVID-19 cases — 82% of intensive-care beds were taken.

So … what’s the strategy? What is going to be the state’s response?

Unfortunately, few answers are surfacing, other than to urge people to get their shots. 

Those who argue the virus is nothing to worry about because of the state’s low death rate haven’t encountered someone battling its lingering side effects.

“If you’re unvaccinated, you should be worried this Fourth of July,” Gov. Spencer Cox told a news conference Thursday. “You should be very worried.” He then went on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, again noting the risks and expressing hope that all options would be on the table for fighting COVID-19, including providing incentives for those who remain hesitant to get the vaccination.

An appropriations bill passed by the Utah Legislature in May restricted how any of the Beehive State’s COVID-19 relief funds could be directed toward vaccine incentives.

Unlike previous surges, this one is somewhat complicated by the existence of vaccines. How much should those who have gotten their shots change their routines because of those who haven’t or, more importantly, who defiantly won’t.

A newly released poll commissioned by the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics found only 67% of registered voters in Utah saying they have been vaccinated. That compares with figures released last week by the state, showing only 54.2% of those currently eligible for the vaccines had been fully vaccinated, meaning two weeks had passed since their last shot.

Many stores, restaurants and other venues post signs saying masks are no longer required for those who are fully vaccinated. But nobody is conducting lie detector tests at the front door (nor should they).

Meanwhile, a map published by the Deseret News showed that only 36.1% of Utah County, the state’s second most populous county, had been fully vaccinated. In Davis County, the figure was 44.4%.

At this point in the pandemic, the temptation is to adopt the attitude that people who refuse to be vaccinated have been informed of the risks and must take responsibility for any consequences that come their way. 

But that would ignore three important demographics: Those too young for vaccines who may be vulnerable; those whose immune systems are too compromised for a vaccine; and those, mainly in low-income brackets, who can’t afford to miss a day’s work because of temporary side effects the shots might cause. The quicker the state gets closer to herd immunity, or the quicker employers can offer time off for shots, the more these people can enjoy some protection. 

Clearly, Utah is not about to reintroduce limits or impose a new mask mandate. 

Writing in Foreign Affairs this month, University of Maryland professor Michele Gelfand reported on research as to why some cultures respond better to danger than others. The United States, she said, is a “loose” culture, where people tend to be more open, entrepreneurial and creative (also more obese and prone to substance abuse and debt). The things that make a loose culture more attractive than a tight and disciplined one also become disadvantages in the face of a pandemic.

“The sooner a society tightens in the face of a threat, the faster it can defeat the threat and return back to its cherished looseness,” she wrote. 

Unfortunately, few strategies for tightening Utah remain, other than to keep nagging people to get their shots.