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Utah Gov. Spencer Cox.
Gov. Spencer Cox, left, receives his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination site run by the Utah County Health Department in Spanish Fork on Thursday, March 25, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

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What explains the partisan divide on vaccines? ‘Politics is becoming religion,’ Utah’s governor says

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox brings his message to ‘Face the Nation’

Why can COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy be traced back to party affiliation?

Because many Americans view politics as religion and sport, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox told CBS television’s “Face the Nation” host Ed O’Keefe, who on Sunday pressed the governor on rising COVID-19 cases, vaccine rollout and the state’s historic drought.

O’Keefe was quick to note that Utah is one of four states where the Delta variant, the highly transmissible COVID-19 variation first discovered in India, has “skyrocketed.”

“Hospitalizations are rising again,” Cox said, a trend he called “concerning.”

“The good news is that our adult population is getting vaccinated at the same rate as the rest of the country ... we’re at about 69% right now,” Cox said. “We have 89% of those over the age of 65 (vaccinated) and we feel really good about that and our death rates have gone down ... but we desperately need more.”

About 95% of Utah’s recent COVID-19 deaths have been among the unvaccinated, Cox said, a reality he stressed is preventable.

“Those are deaths that don’t have to happen, hospitalizations that don’t have to happen.”

Cox recently set a goal to have 70% of adult Utahns vaccinated against COVID-19 by July 4, and on Sunday he said his administration would like to see more young people get inoculated.

Vaccine hesitancy is proving to be a key roadblock in getting all eligible Utahns inoculated; according to a Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, roughly 30% of Utahns are either still hesitant or will never get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Complications also stem from how rural Utah is, Cox said, although he stressed that it’s “never been easier to get a vaccine.”

“We have set up a very robust vaccine network, our clinics are spread throughout the state,” he told O’Keefe.

Some of the hesitancy can be traced back to political party lines, according to O’Keefe, who on Sunday pointed to the majority of Democrats — 86%, according to a Washington Post poll — who have received the vaccine compared to the 45% of Republicans who have been inoculated and 38% who say they never will.

“It’s troubling,” Cox said in response.

“I’ve spoken about this often...how unfortunate it is that politics is becoming religion in our country, politics is becoming sport and entertainment in our country,” he said. “It’s a huge mistake, it’s caused us to make bad decisions during this pandemic and in other phases of our life as well.”

Cox did say that Utah Republicans are doing “a little better” when compared to O’Keefe’s numbers, although he did not go into specifics.

Some state governments have turned to lotteries and cash incentives to boost vaccine rollout, while other states have taken a more creative route. In Alabama, recently vaccinated people could win a ride on the famed Talladega Speedway, while West Virginia is holding a giveaway with rifles and shotguns, according to Scientific American.

But in an appropriations bill passed by the Utah Legislature in May, lawmakers restricted any of the Beehive State’s COVID-19 relief funds to be directed toward vaccine incentives.

Cox on Sunday did not rule out revisiting vaccine incentives with lawmakers, telling O’Keefe that he “would like all options on the table.”

“We’re certainly having those conversations with the Legislature, they’re looking closely at what’s working in other states,” Cox said. “I will say this, not dying is a great incentive.”

O’Keefe then turned to climate change and the drought consuming Utah, asking Cox what solutions, if any, his administration has in the works.

Cox pointed to two. Number one, he said, was that “every person in our state has to use less water.”

“That’s going to happen in lots of different ways. We have water restrictions across the state,” he said, noting that his family’s farm in Fairview is currently at 70% of its water consumption.

Number two is “to store more water.”

As the fastest growing state in the country, Cox said “we have to be prepared for generations to come,” something he said Utah’s early settlers knew how to do.

“We’re not doing a great job of that anymore,” he told O’Keefe. “I’m grateful in this bipartisan infrastructure push, there is money for that kind of infrastructure. Storing water above ground and underground as well will make a big difference.”

O’Keefe then pressed Cox on the reluctance of some GOP politicians to act on the current environmental crisis, telling the governor that he is “a member of a party that includes many that don’t still believe in climate change.”

Utah Rep. John Curtis.
Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, joins in on a Zoom call with BYU economist and air pollution researcher Arden Pope, Mayor Celeste Johnson of Midway, Mayor Kelleen Potter of Heber and Mayor Mike Kourianos of Price for a Citizens’ Climate Lobby virtual town hall on clean air and stewardship on Wednesday, May 6, 2020.
ZOOM.com

Cox pointed to Utah Rep. John Curtis, who recently launched the Republican Climate Caucus, before acknowledging the importance of finding short term solutions to fight the wave of wildfires and drought plaguing the American West.

“We’re working on electric car infrastructure across the West, so great things are happening there but we also have to take the short term impacts and we have to take them very seriously, which President Biden did this week talking about wildfires in the West.”

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