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Opinion: Utahns must do whatever it takes to get more people vaccinated

The vaccines took a great deal of effort to produce so quickly. Now is the time for everyone to rise to the moment.

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A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination.

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccination at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The miracle we were waiting for is here, and it has been here for a while. Whether you believe it was sent from God, invented by scientists, or something in between, the COVID-19 vaccine’s timing felt miraculous.

Bureaucracies cut red tape, governments rushed funding and scientists delivered — providing us a way out of the roiling pandemic storm. The COVID-19 vaccine was the result of scientists, health care leaders, politicians, states and the federal government’s unified effort to address the biggest threat our country, and world, has seen in decades. President Donald Trump began the effort and President Joe Biden is leading its delivery. The perfect cure for the perfect storm.

However, too many of us still haven’t received full vaccination, and we are back in the tumultuous throes of a pandemic cyclone. We know now that many unvaccinated people lack adequate access to health care and science-based information about the vaccine. Others are hesitant because they fear or mistrust the health care system and/or government. And then there are those who outright refuse the vaccine and actively encourage others to avoid it too.

 We have worked together in the past to solve hard problems, and the complex issues driving the ongoing pandemic are solvable, as well, if we all unite to tackle this national emergency. Already, we are learning how to increase access to COVID-19 vaccination and help combat pervasive misinformation. What hurdles remain? What has been missing from the vaccination effort?

A major hurdle is that children, largely ineligible to be vaccinated, are now infected at higher rates than ever, and there continues to be limited masking happening at school. Mass gatherings are increasing, nearly to a pre-COVID-19 level, with few precautionary measures to prevent spread. This has placed a strain on our health care system and workers, exhausting them. Intensive care units are full. Patients who desperately need care, whether due to COVID-19 or other illnesses or accidents, are facing waits and transfers and limited beds and providers. This is affecting us all and we need leaders to demonstrate courage and set an example for how we get through this infection surge. It may not be easy, but I am confident we can succeed. 

Utah Health Policy Project recently made the very tough decision to cancel its annual Hispanic Heritage Parade and Street Festival. Last spring, with vaccines more broadly available, we were hopeful, like everyone, that by September in-person gatherings would be safe. We planned to hold a vaccine clinic at our event to increase access to vaccination for those most experiencing barriers to health care. We were excited and had a wonderful view of the future ahead of us.

But with the surge of the extra-infectious delta variant COVID-19 cases, UHPP had to make the hard decision to prioritize the health of our fellow Utahns and cancel the event. Now is not the time to gather en masse, but we can still do our best to meet the moment.

We are now repurposing the momentum generated by organizing the Hispanic Heritage Parade and Street Festival, and planning smaller, targeted vaccine outreach events. We are working with community-based organizations, providers, health systems, and local governments to hold safe and fun vaccine clinics throughout our state.

Please help us with this effort. If you are a provider, make it a goal to talk to every one of your patients in coming weeks. If you are a parent, talk to your eligible children, maybe even use a little guilt. If you are employer, think seriously about mandating the vaccine. 

If you are putting on an event, consider hosting a vaccine clinic. If you are a community-based organization, use your trusted relationship with your community to relay accurate information. If you are a government official or leader in your community, avoid sending mixed signals; we look to you for leadership and clarity. 

We all have a role to play, and it may be hard or awkward, maybe it will even be contentious, but be persistent and polite and we can make progress together and get Utah fully vaccinated. Remember the vaccine is free!

Matt Slonaker is the executive director of Utah Health Policy Project.