Gov. Spencer Cox is counting on stories from Utahns who skipped the COVID-19 shots and then became gravely ill after catching the virus to encourage more vaccinations in the state, warning that opposition to the vaccines is “literally killing” people.

“I promise you the disease is worse than the vaccine. I can’t make it more clear than that. The disease is far worse than the vaccine, and we desperately need you to get vaccinated,” the governor said Thursday during the taping of his monthly news conference on PBS Utah in Salt Lake City.

COVID-19 cases are continuing to climb in the state, as are hospitalization and deaths from the virus, something Cox said is “unnecessary” since more than 95% of Utahns struck down are unvaccinated and those who do experience what are known as breakthrough cases after getting the shots seldom suffer serious illness.

Vaccination rates are starting to climb slightly, he said, citing recent stories of Utahns speaking out about their “terrible outcomes” from COVID-19 after choosing not to get the shots, including Aaron Hartle, a Utah County nurse practitioner and former triathlete who had been skeptical about the vaccine.

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Cox pointed out that Hartle, the subject of a Deseret News story, “regrets not getting vaccinated because he nearly died after contracting COVID.” Hartle, who remained on oxygen after spending a week in the hospital, is now urging others not to make the same mistake.

In the Uinta Basin, a hospital clinic manager experienced what the governor called “a serious case of COVID and now can’t walk up a flight of stairs without being winded. She’s now trying to warn her community, which has one of the lowest vaccination percentages in the state.”

Identified only as Stormy in a YouTube video produced by the Tri-County Health Department that serves Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties, the woman details her continued health problems after first getting the virus in late December.

Once a vocal critic of vaccinations, Stormy says, “I rolled the dice and I lost.” She says she’s “thankful” to still be alive and that although a bout of COVID-19 is “nothing” for many, “for other people. it’s the fight of their lives. I know. I did it. And I wish I would have had the vaccine.”

Jack Allen, 12, closes his eyes as he gets a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine..
Jack Allen, 12, closes his eyes as he gets a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Estefania Cruz at the Central Davis Senior Activity Center in Kaysville on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Anti-vaccination ‘propaganda’ dangerous

Utah’s Republican governor also had some harsh words for the anti-vaccination rhetoric sweeping through conservative circles. Last weekend, there was applause at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas for the federal government’s inability to hit its vaccine goals.

While he’s not aware of any hard data proving what he called “propaganda” as having a significant impact on vaccination rates, Cox said he thinks “it’s harmful. It’s certainly not helpful. And it does concern me deeply. I agree with some who have said it’s ridiculous.”

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Former President Donald Trump and other Republicans should be taking credit for Operation Warp Speed, which developed the vaccines in record time, “one of the greatest advancements of medicine in human history,” the governor said.

“But I don’t think we can take credit for getting the vaccine and then tell people there’s something wrong with the vaccine and you shouldn’t get it. That just doesn’t make sense to me,” he said, adding that “we have these talking heads who have gotten the vaccine and are telling other people not to get the vaccine.”

That message, Cox said, “is ridiculous. It’s dangerous. It’s damaging. And it’s killing people. It’s literally killing their supporters and that makes no sense to me.”

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney recently used the term “moronic” to describe the politicization of COVID-19 vaccines, saying “if Trump and his supporters take credit for developing the vaccine, why the heck won’t they take advantage of the vaccine they received plaudits for having developed?” 

Thursday, the Republican senator tweeted: “The #COVID19 vaccines are safe, effective, and free. We must all do our part to increase the confidence folks have in these vaccines and I urge all eligible Utahns to receive them without delay.”

State in ‘hand-to-hand combat’ phase of vaccinations

The governor, though, suggested nothing’s changed when asked about how Utah will confront the vaccine hesitant.

“The plans are just to continue to get people vaccinated. I mean, those are the plans,” he said. “Again, that’s the only answer. Vaccines work better than masks, the vaccines work better than social distancing. Vaccines just work and they allow us to do all the other things we want to do. We are absolutely continuing with our efforts.”

That means working closely with business, faith and community leaders, as well as health care providers as Utah’s vaccination program moves away from mass clinics to what Cox described as “hand-to-hand combat, where we have to have conversations with people” that can take hours, days or even weeks.

“That’s slow going, but every one of those vaccinations is a potential life saved,” the governor said.

Although many states are offering residents incentives to get vaccinated, such as Ohio’s “Vax-a-Million” lottery with drawings for $1 million prizes or full-ride college scholarships, Cox said Utah “hasn’t made any additional progress on that.”

The governor initially expressed enthusiasm for Ohio’s lottery, but leaders of the Utah Legislature balked, and lawmakers even added language to a budget bill passed in special session forbidding any such giveaways, even though they could be paid for out of federal coronavirus relief funds.

Cox said he is still optimistic about vaccinations in Utah. He had hoped 70% of adult Utahns would have received at least one dose of vaccine by July 4th, a goal he erroneously announced was reached last week before recognizing the state “screwed up” in its count of federal doses administered.

“There’s still a group of people who are vaccine hesitant, but they’re not completely opposed to the vaccine,” the governor said. “I think a lot of them thought, ‘Well, as long as cases are going down and it’s going away, then I’m fine.’ “

That’s changing, he said, because “now that cases are going up and we are seeing more hospitalizations, I think those people are saying, ‘Yeah, probably, it’s time to go and get this.’ Family members are encouraging others to get it. So we’re making progress. So I’m more optimistic today than I was even two or three weeks ago.”

Utah’s latest COVID-19 numbers

The Utah Department of Health reported 693 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, and four additional deaths from the virus. There have been just under 422,000 cases of the coronavirus in the state since the pandemic began in March 2020.

More than 2.9 million vaccine doses have been administered in the state, a daily increase of 5,244. Just over half of all Utahns — 66% of those 18 and older — have gotten at lease one dose, according to the health department, and 45% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since a final dose.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 519 per day, and 5,053 people were tested and 8,590 tests conducted in Utah since Wednesday. That puts the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests at 9% when all results are included and 13.4% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.

Currently, there are 258 people hospitalized in Utah with COVID-19. The state’s death toll has reached 2,410 lives lost with the four new deaths reported Thursday:

  • A Utah County man, between 65 and 84, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Salt Lake County man, between 45 and 64, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Weber County man, between 65and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.

Correction: Gov. Spencer Cox said the woman in the Tri-County Health Department video was a nurse but a spokeswoman for the Ashley Regional Medical Center in Vernal said she manages clinics for the hospital.