Despite being vaccinated against COVID-19, Harold Paulino said he and his family are planning to celebrate the July 4th holiday by keeping to themselves as a new poll shows nearly 30% of Utahns still say they’re either hesitant to get the shots or have already decided they won’t.

“Normally, we gather with family. But some of the older folks in the family, they still don’t feel comfortable,” said Paulino, a software engineer from Clearfield. “So we’re spending it just by ourselves and probably going to go camping.”

Will that make them feel safer? Yes, he said, “because the closest person to us is at least 100 feet away.”

Public health officials in Utah have been struggling to boost vaccinations. Gov. Spencer Cox set a goal for 70% of adult Utahns 18 to have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by July 4th, just as President Joe Biden did for the nation, although both Utah and the United States are expected to fall short.

Cox said Thursday the state is likely to be “very close,” however, if vaccinations administered in the state by federal agencies are added to the 64.8% of adults counted by the Utah Department of Health. Still, the governor said, that won’t be enough to stop the spread of the deadly virus as cases are rising.

There’s “nothing magical about that 70% threshold,” Cox said during his regular update on Utah’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, held at the Capitol in Salt Lake City, adding a warning to Utahns that “if you are unvaccinated, you should be worried this Fourth of July, you should be very worried this Fourth of July.”

A new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that since last month, only another 2% of Utahns say they’re either vaccinated against COVID-19 or will be as soon as possible. Now, 67% claim to have already been vaccinated, up from 64% in the previous poll, and 2% say they’ll get it done quickly, down from 3%.

Basing decisions on science

While Paulino’s relatives, especially those in health care, believe vaccines are the only way to stop the spread of the deadly virus, Paulino said he’s heard plenty of the “conspiracy type of talk” from friends and neighbors about the pandemic.

Can Utahns have ‘normal’ July celebrations or will COVID-19 still put a damper on them?
“I Got My COVID-19 Vaccine!” stickers in Utah.
“I Got My COVID-19 Vaccine!” stickers are pictured at the South Davis Senior Activity Center in Bountiful on Monday June 28, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

“They see the vaccine as a government push. The story they believe is that this virus is just a ‘big pharma’ excuse to basically make more money,” he said. Paulino said he and his wife, who’s also fully vaccinated, have been told “you don’t know what they put in that vaccine, it may have a long-term effect on your health. You’re a guinea pig.

His 12-year-old son, Keaton, who received his first dose of vaccine last week, hasn’t been spared.

“His friends are criticizing him,” Paulino said.

For Paulino, it’s about protecting the health of his family, which also includes a 6-year-old daughter who’ll be vaccinated as soon as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorizes the shots for children younger than 12, likely later this year.

“We’re based on science in our household. We’re very much based on it. So all the conspiracy theories, they don’t fly with me. I’m not going to fight people,” he said, although he acknowledged, “it really scares me, why people would endanger their lives and somebody else’s life.”

Range of vaccination rates in Utah

According to Utah Department of Health data, less than 37% of residents in the Clearfield/Hooper area were fully vaccinated as of Monday, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose. Just under 44% of all Utahns were fully vaccinated at that point.

But in Park City and some east-side Salt Lake City neighborhoods, the number approached 70%, while in many rural areas of the state, it dropped below 30%. Utah County also reported a fully vaccinated rate below 30% in some areas, including Eagle Mountain and Cedar Valley, with a high of nearly 44% in Mapleton.

Nelmalee Ferreira, left, receives a COVID-19 vaccination from Davis County Health Department worker Tauna Wall, right, at the South Davis Senior Activity Center in Bountiful on Monday June 28, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

The numbers of Utahns who are hesitant or opposed to the COVID-19 vaccine are holding steady. Six percent of Utahns “want to wait and see how it works” first, down just 1% from the previous poll, while 10% still say they’re in no particular rush to get vaccinated and 13%, that they’ll never get the shots.

What has changed is a 10% jump in concern over the past month about possible side effects, from 21% to 31%, among Utahns who won’t get the coronavirus vaccines that have been available to all adults in the state since late March and, more recently, to anyone 12 and older.

Distrust of the vaccines is up, too, from 24% to 28%, although slightly fewer say they don’t see the shots as necessary, 23% now compared to 27% a month ago. Then, just over a quarter cited other reasons, an option now the choice of 18%.

Hesitancy about vaccines may keep Utah from reaching herd immunity

The new poll was conducted June 18-25 of 1,000 registered Utah voters for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the full sample.

Annie George, an epidemiologist with the Salt Lake County Health Department, believes there are still plenty of Utahns who’ll be persuaded to get the shots, even though the number of daily doses has plummeted from a peak of more than 45,000 in April to just around a tenth of that today.

“I don’t think that we’ve completely stalled. I think we will be able to continue to go forward. But it’s not in the leaps and bounds that we saw in the beginning,” George said, when so many Utahns wanted the vaccines, they jammed phone lines and crashed computer servers trying to secure appointments.

Now, the vaccines are widely available through pharmacies, physicians and pop-up clinics in places like parks, shopping centers, churches and even offices and other workplaces as the mass vaccination sites set up earlier this year wind down.

George said the intent is to make it easy for someone who still isn’t sure about the shots.

A COVID-19 test is given in Salt Lake City. It’s unclear if the test was for the delta, lambda or alpha variant.
Diego Peralta gets a COVID-19 test at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Monday June 28, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

“We need to make a concentrated effort to reach out to them, to see if maybe a more convenient location or setting up a vaccine site at their workplace or working with employers to tell people it’s OK to take the day off” if they feel unwell afterward, she said, as well offering reminders their immigration status is not being checked.

In Utah County, where vaccination rates are among the Wasatch Front’s lowest, the biggest issue is a long-standing tradition of actively opposing vaccinations, said Aislynn Tolman-Hill, spokeswoman for the county’s health department.

“Historically, even before COVID, Utah County has been one of the more vaccine-hesitant counties,” Tolman-Hill said. “We certainly have a lot of individuals who have been very not just vaccine hesitant but just very anti, anti-vax, anti-vaccinations that have been very vocal about that.”

Why that’s the case is not clear, she said.

“Is it demographics? We don’t have a really good reason why, honestly. Is it politics? All of those things are possibilities. We don’t have the magic answer. We wish we did,” Tolman-Hill said, although a correlation between income and education levels and higher vaccination rates has been identified.

Some minds can’t be changed, she said, but for those who might be persuaded, the county’s health department is providing science-based information and encouraging them to talk about any concerns they might have about the COVID-19 vaccine with trusted health care providers, such as a family doctor or local pharmacists.

That’s what Ana Patricia Jenkins, a manager at the Delta Airlines reservations center at Salt Lake City International Airport, did. The Bountiful resident said before getting the shot last week, she needed to feel comfortable that the vaccine would not cause her allergies and other health issues to flare up.

“I’m just glad that it’s done,” Jenkins said after feeling no side effects. Three of her four children are old enough to be vaccinated and are getting the shots, she said, although her husband has decided it’s not for him. That’s OK, Jenkins said.

“It’s not right for everybody,” she said. “You have to make that decision on that personal level, and if it’s not, it’s not.”

Understanding the risk of the delta variant could be a motivator to get the young vaccinated
Ana Patricia Jenkins holds her vaccination record card in Utah.
Ana Patricia Jenkins holds her vaccination record card after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination at pop-up clinic sponsored by the Davis County Health Department in the parking lot of Kent’s Market in Clearfield on Wednesday, June 23, 2021. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Public health officials are attempting to provide reassurance about the vaccines at a time when some see the pandemic as all but over now that summer activities are underway without restrictions. George said the public needs to be clear that the virus remains a threat.

“We’re trying to get word out that this is not over. People in political arenas may have stated that, but it’s not. This will continue until we get enough people vaccinated to where these variants stop occurring,” she said, like the highly contagious delta variant that raged through India and is spreading fast in Utah and the rest of the country.

That variant, which may well be more virulent than its predecessors, is being blamed for a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, along with the Memorial Day holiday. Another increase will likely follow July 4th, George said, warning that even someplace with a high rate of vaccination can still be risky.

“I keep getting asked the question, can you breathe yet? Can you relax yet? The answer is really no, because I know that every time this virus enters a new host, that’s an opportunity for the virus to change and a variant to be created,” she said. “In some ways, I feel more anxious.”