More than twice as many Utahns as earlier in the pandemic are resigned to dealing with COVID-19 for at least another couple of years, according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.

Now, 42% of Utahns say they believe life won’t get back to normal for several years, compared to highs of 20% in previous polls, most recently in June before the current surge in cases sparked by the highly contagious delta variant.

There’s also an increase in the number of Utahns who aren’t sure how long it will take to return to normalcy, 29% now compared to a previous high of 21% in March. In June, 18% of Utahns weren’t able to make a prediction.

Just over half of Utahns said in June that a normal life was less than a year away, a number that’s dropped to only 13%. The number of Utahns who put the return at one year rose slightly, from 12% in June to 16% now.

Unknowns feeding uncertainty

The results come as the new, likely more transmissible omicron variant first identified in South Africa late last month has been detected in Utah, and many other states that are already bracing for a boost in case counts due to winter holiday gatherings.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns. What will this omicron variant do? What will the next one do?” asked Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “People are just less sure now about what’s going to happen next.”

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The latest poll was conducted Nov. 18-30 of 812 registered Utah voters by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.44 percentage points.

Perry said a lot has changed for Utahns since last spring.

“Vaccinations were starting to be more widespread. People were getting them. Numbers were coming down. Hospitals were less full. People then felt like we would have a handle on this thing,” he said.

But Perry said attitudes have shifted as Utah, one of the nation’s COVID-19 hot spots just a few weeks ago, stares down omicron along with seeing “people still getting sick and dying across the country.”

Their increased uncertainty translates into seeing COVID-19 sticking around longer, he said.

“At the very least, they think it’s going to be with us for a very long time, several years at least,” Perry said, despite all of the measures previously taken, including politically divisive lockdowns and mask mandates.

“The entire COVID experience has made people realize there is little certainty when it comes to this virus,” he said, pointing to the stock market tumble when the new omicron variant first surfaced along with yet-to-be answered questions about its virulence.

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What should the ‘new normal’ be?

Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said Utahns may view a “normal” post-pandemic world very differently. He said it’s surprising so many now see that coming after several years.

“I guess I could interpret it as also folks are getting smarter about it, but it seems like folks are becoming a little bit more pessimistic,” Kim said. “Or maybe they’re redefining what normal is, or that’s a moving target.”

For public health experts, he said COVID-19 will remain a concern.

“Getting back to normal is the worst thing that we can do. That just sets us up for another outbreak, more of what’s going on today,” he said, adding “normal shouldn’t be our goal. Our goal should be a new normal, where we learn from the mistakes we made.”

At the top of the list of those mistakes is what the professor termed the politicalization of COVID-19 that’s led many Americans to question getting vaccinated against the virus and to reject mask and other health mandates.

Kim said he believes by next summer, Utah and the rest of the country could be worrying a lot less about COVID-19 as immunity increases, preferably from vaccinations. But that depends on the virus variants and on the public’s willingness to embrace precautions.

Some will want a return to “exactly what we did before” the pandemic began nearly two years ago, he said, while others will continue to wipe down their groceries and refuse invitations.

But there’s a “better normal,” where people permanently adopt precautions like wearing masks during cold and flu season or staying home when sick, said Kim, who taught classes remotely for the past week and a half while fighting a bad cold.

“We’re almost there,” he said.

Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said the poll results are not surprising, given that Utahns have seen both progress and setbacks throughout the pandemic.

Hudachko said what’s needed to get back to “as as normal a state as we possibly can” is already available to Utahns.

“I think when we return to normal is completely up to us,” he said.

“The more people who get vaccinated and get booster doses and get their kids vaccinated, the more protection we’ve got in the community. Those are the types of things that are going to deliver us back to normal.”