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Will federal mandate boost Utah’s COVID-19 vaccinations? See what health experts have to say

OSHA issues vaccination rules for large companies, health care workers

Lakeview Hospital nurses Becca Fackrell, Liz Barnes and Jacci Kennedy pose after they received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
Lakeview Hospital intensive care nurses Becca Fackrell, left, Liz Barnes and Jacci Kennedy pose for photos after they received the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the MountainStar Healthcare hospital in Bountiful on Monday, Dec. 21, 2020. Will the Biden administration’s formalization Thursday of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large companies nationwide push more Utahns to get the shots?
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Will the Biden administration’s formalization Thursday of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large companies nationwide push more Utahns to get the shots?

Yes, said Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, but Utahns need to feel they’re getting vaccinated to protect those around them rather than to comply with an order from the federal government.

“Mandates are effective. It basically gets folks who are on the fence about things. It gives them that little extra push to get vaccinated. It’s actually even changed the minds of folks who were previously very much against vaccines,” Kim said, citing companies in places like the South that have high vaccination rates after imposing mandates.

About 55% of all Utahns are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their second dose of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or their single shot of Johnson & Johnson vaccine. On Tuesday, the federal government gave final approval for children 5-11 to be vaccinated.

Kim said a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that found 62% of Utahns oppose President Joe Biden’s decision to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations or regular testing for the virus at companies with more than 100 employees likely reflects more of the region’s anti-federal government sentiment than opposition to the vaccine.

“Utah is also unique in the Intermountain West in that there is a strong communitarian spirit,” the professor said, because of the role of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That means vaccine-hesitant Utahns may change their minds when they’re told what vaccines mean for their families, friends and neighbors, he said.

“If we message the vaccine from a local perspective and really focus on that the vaccine is not just an individual choice but a choice for your community and your family, I think that messaging may be more effective than a top-down, federal mandate, at least in Utah,” Kim said. “Most Utahns want to do what’s best for their local community.”

While mandates usually are seen as “an absolute last resort” by most public health experts, Kim applauded the administration’s action. “We’d rather have people make their own decisions about vaccines, but when push comes to shove, it can be an effective tool.”

The Utah Department of Health is not preparing for an increase in COVID-19 vaccinations as a result of the mandate, spokesman Jenny Johnson said.

“Right now we are focused on vaccines for children and making sure we have adequate vaccine for this age group. We do not have worries about adult vaccines as providers have plenty of it on hand for any potential increases,” Johnson said.

Asked whether the federal mandate is expected to increase COVID-19 vaccinations in the state — or create more opposition to the shots — Johnson said that was a question for Gov. Spencer Cox’s office. Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson issued a statement opposing the mandate and warning it could worsen attitudes toward vaccination.

“The president’s vaccine mandate for businesses is a serious mistake. It’s outside the authority of the federal government and, as public health experts have pointed out, it is likely to exacerbate and broaden public resistance to all vaccines, which may outweigh any marginal benefit in terms of increased population immunity,” they said.

The governor and lieutenant governor continued to “strongly encourage Utahns to get vaccinated to protect themselves and their loved ones, and to protect the hospital capacity that we all use,” calling COVID-19 vaccines “a miracle of science and represent the best way to end the pandemic.”

But, they said, “a federal mandate is heavy-handed overreach that will harden vaccine resistance and polarization. Workplace vaccination and testing policies should remain firmly the prerogative of business owners. We’re committed to fighting the mandate through every possible avenue.”

Utah is gearing up to fight the mandate in court.

Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider, and University of Utah Health have already announced requirements that caregivers be vaccinated against COVID-19. Both health care systems allow for medical and religious exemptions.

What was described as a “significant decision for some of those not yet vaccinated” by Dr. Mark Briesacher, Intermountain Healthcare chief physician executive and senior vice president, at the late October announcement is already sparking plans for protests at hospitals in St. George and Murray.

It’s too soon to say whether more employees have gotten vaccinated as a result of the requirement, or how many have sought exemptions, Intermountain Healthcare spokesman Jess Gomez said. About 80% of Intermountain Healthcare’s caregivers were already fully vaccinated when the announcement was made.

“This decision to require COVID vaccination for caregivers was made carefully and thoughtfully to meet the vaccine requirement issued by the Biden administration on Sept. 9, with more than 100 employees, companies that contract with the federal government, and health care facilities that treat Medicaid or Medicare patients,” Gomez said in a statement.

All of the parameters set by the White House for the requirement apply to Intermountain Healthcare, he said.

“To not remain in compliance with the federal government would put at risk health care access for hundreds of thousands of Utahns who rely on Medicare and Medicaid. That means that some of the most vulnerable in our community — including underserved populations, the elderly and children — would not have their care covered,” Gomez said.

For many rural communities, he said “that result could be devastating. Remaining compliant with the federal government rule will enable us to continue to care for patients in our communities and help keep our caregivers as safe as possible, which is critical to our mission.”

In August, University of Utah Health leaders approved a resolution requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for hospital and clinic staff, credentialed and privileged providers and health Academics staff in what are considered “patient sensitive” jobs.

U. Health spokeswoman Kathy Wilets said by mid-November, employees will have to have submitted their vaccination record or applied for an exemption, so the impact of the requirement on vaccination rates won’t be clear until then.

“Right now we think we’re upwards of 85% but again, we’ll know for sure in a few weeks,” Wilets said, adding, “Even before the requirement, we had a pretty high rate of vaccination among our employees, somewhere in the range of 80%.”