SALT LAKE CITY — More than two-thirds of Utahns now say they plan to get vaccinated against COVID-19, according to new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll results.
But it’s not clear whether that’s going to be enough to provide widespread immunity in the state.
While 67% of Utahns want the shots, 21% don’t plan to get vaccinated and 12% aren’t sure. The poll, conducted Jan. 12-15 of 1,000 registered Utah voters by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Experts estimate it could take some 70% to 90% of the population developing a resistance to the deadly virus — either through infection or, preferably, vaccination — before what’s known as herd immunity all but stops its spread and ends an outbreak that is nearing the one-year mark.
There are, however, many unknowns, including how long immunity lasts and the impact of future virus mutations. Vaccines, which may only be effective for nine months to a year, are believed to be effective against the current variants, but that might not be the case for new strains.
Doctors see the poll results on vaccines as welcome news, especially if Utahns keep on wearing marks, social distancing and taking the other public health precautions that have been advised throughout the pandemic, even after receiving their two vaccine doses.
“That’s encouraging, as long as we stay up there in that 67% or more as we are able to help the undecided individuals understand the importance” of being vaccinated, said Dr. Brandon Webb, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician.
“I think those numbers are cautiously optimistic.”
Webb said he believes acceptance rates for the voluntary vaccine will increase as the rollout continues and more Utahns are able to hear from someone they know about the shots, which have few side effects and provide 95% protection against infection after two doses.
He cautioned that abandoning public health precautions like wearing masks — still necessary because people can still contract COVID-19 after a first vaccine dose, and even after two doses, may still be able to spread it — would mean that more than 90% of Utahns would need to be vaccinated to get COVID-19 under control.
“It’s absolutely critical to understand it’s a two-part process,” Webb said. “Infection control and vaccination are inseparable.”
He said the hope is the state can reach “optimal, or near optimal population immunity levels by the fall, when schools go back and respiratory virus season starts up again” — a goal made a little easier now that the winter holiday season is past and future holidays will likely be celebrated outdoors, starting with Memorial Day in May.
Last September, just over half of Utahns said they would take a federal Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine if it became available. By mid-December, doses of the first of two vaccines authorized so far were being injected into the arms of hospital employees.
Since the pandemic began, roughly 10% of Utah’s more than 3.2 million people have contracted the coronavirus. The Utah Department of Health does not have overall numbers on what percent of those eligible have chosen to be vaccinated, but surveys at long-term care facilities show 86% of residents and 56% of staff have opted for the shots.
In addition to them, other groups in Utah authorized to be vaccinated are front-line hospital and other health care workers, emergency services personnel, first responders, school teachers and staffs, and now those 70 and older. More groups, including those with underlying medical conditions, are expected to be added in the coming weeks.
Hyrum resident Winston Jones, a 70-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, said “of course” he prayed before deciding to sign up for a shot at a mass vaccination event at the Cache County Fairgrounds.
His advice for those Utahns who aren’t sure they want to join him in getting vaccinated?
“Do your analysis. Weigh your options. Consider the alternatives. Pray about it,” Jones said, adding, “I’m doing it.”
He’d made up his mind before leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rolled up their sleeves and received vaccinations earlier this week, including President Russell M. Nelson, who said on social media, “We have prayed often for this literal godsend.”
Church leaders urged members to “help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization” because “vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life,” according to a news release.
Jones said the example set by the leaders of his faith will likely influence others.
His own concerns are about how quickly the vaccines were developed and brought to market, through former President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed. Jones said no one can be sure about the long-range effects of the vaccine, although he’s “sure they did as good as job as they could in the time allowed.”
The poll found that older Utahns were slightly more interested in getting vaccinated, but the partisan divide was pronounced, with 94% of Democrats intending to get their shots compared to just 58% of Republicans.
Of those who identify as liberal, 93% are ready for the vaccine, compared to 70% of moderates and 55% of conservatives.
Rasmussen said that parallels national results because Republicans tend to be more interested in the economic effects of the pandemic and are more confident of a recovery, while Democrats are focused on the seriousness of the health aspects.
“These are some pretty deep attitudes and when they get this entrenched, it’s hard to budge them,” Rasmussen said, adding that he sees little that will shift the GOP mindset, especially with a Democrat, President Joe Biden, now in the White House.
He also noted that just because Utahns said they planned to get vaccinated doesn’t mean they will.
Should problems emerge with the vaccine, participation could drop. But the opposite could be true, he said, “if the issue receded a bit from the headlines of the partisan wars and it’s really going smoothly and people are feeling really good about, some that say they won’t right now will probably end up doing it.”
Jason Perry, director of the U.’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he sees the interest in the vaccine continuing to climb as it is distributed more widely.
“What’s happening in Utah and across the country is there is a segment of our population concerned about getting the vaccine, but every single day in the country and the state of Utah, more and more people are getting it,” Perry said, predicting that will reduce the concern.
“The rhetoric has had an impact, without question,” he said of the political debates over the pandemic during the Trump administration. Perry said it’s surprising, too, that Operation Warp Speed, which helped produce vaccines in record time and is arguably a key achievement of the former president, isn’t resonating more with Republicans.
Questions about the vaccine “have been stoked over a long period of time from various places and they’ve found a home with some people in the state of Utah,” he said, at least for now.
When the vaccine becomes available to more of the skeptics, Perry said, they may view it differently.
“You have a lot of people who said they may not be willing to get the vaccine. Well, they’re not really in that line yet anyway,” he said “It’s a different question when you’re up and you know a lot of people have received the vaccine. Does that change your analysis? I think it will.”