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Nation’s eyes on Utah: How is Gov. Cox handling the ‘twin crises’ of COVID-19, drought?

Cox covers vaccine hesitancy, delta variant, church influence, drought’s impact on farmers during Washington Post Live conversation

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Gov. Spencer Cox provides updates on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during a weekly briefing at the Capitol.

Gov. Spencer Cox provides updates on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic during a weekly briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 13, 2021.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox was in the national spotlight again Thursday, this time joining Washington Post Live to talk about the “twin crises” he’s juggling while leading the state of Utah: the rising presence of the COVID-19 delta variant and the drought gripping the West.

In the interview, Cox expressed reluctance against enacting any more COVID-19 restrictions as the delta variant spreads — arguing the answer lies instead with vaccines and tackling vaccine hesitancy.

“What steps are we prepared to take?” Cox said to Frances Stead Sellers, a senior writer for the Washington Post. “It’s to continue to encourage vaccinations, because that’s how we stop the spread of this virus.”

Utah currently ranks sixth worse in the nation for the rate of COVID-19 cases as some Utahns continue to be reluctant to get the vaccine. Meanwhile the West’s “megadrought” has led Cox to issue three executive orders declaring a statewide drought emergency. Most of the state is classified in “exceptional” drought — perhaps the worst conditions seen in the state’s recorded history.

Cox fielded questions from Stead Sellers about Utah’s successes — and mistakes — amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how the state is coming to terms with the drought and the reality of climate change.

For both of these crises, Cox discussed what makes Utah unique: how many Utahns have turned to their faith to grapple with these hard times and what role The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has played.

Why Cox isn’t keen on new COVID-19 restrictions

As the delta variant spreads, Stead Sellers asked Cox what “public health mitigation methods are you prepared to implement should they become necessary with the spread of this virus?”

“This is one area where I think we’ve all struggled and gotten wrong in a lot of ways,” Cox said.

The governor added that he wished the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had behavioral scientists working alongside epidemiologists. As he’s said before, what’s motivated many to get the vaccine is a return to normalcy — and backpedaling on that wouldn’t go well with the vaccinated population, Cox said.

“The same types of changes and requirements that we made over the past year are not going to work going forward. They’re just not. And they don’t have to,” Cox said, arguing the answer is instead continuing to encourage vaccines.

But Cox also acknowledged the very red state of Utah has its own challenges with vaccine hesitancy.

Earlier this week, Cox announced the state had reached his goal of administering at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to 70% of adults. However, the governor said there’s still reason for concern as cases and hospitalizations continue to rise and as the highly contagious and likely more virulent delta variant of the coronavirus that was first detected in India spreads rapidly through Utah and the rest of the country.

Cox has pointed out vaccination rates are still below 70% in some parts of the state, including many rural areas and communities of color. While vaccination rates are highest in more liberal areas like Park City and on Salt Lake City’s east bench, they’re lagging in more conservative areas like Utah County.

The latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that 59% of Republicans in Utah said they were already vaccinated against the virus, compared to 89% of Democrats. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found nationally, only 45% of Republicans have gotten a shot, compared to 86% of Democrats.

“Republicans are less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats and unaffiliated,” Cox said pointing to those polls. “Now, the Republicans in Utah are getting vaccinated at a higher rate than Republicans nationwide, but we are a very red state. A very Republican state. And certainly, in rural Utah where I live, where I grew up and raised my family, those rates are lower.”

Cox said there’s “less trust in the vaccine” in those areas, so “trying to overcome those barriers is critical.

‘We’re doing everything we can to help take the politics out of — out of the COVID response and certainly out of vaccination,” the governor said.

How The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints factors in

Asked if Utah’s largest church has played a “strong enough role in helping you get people in Utah vaccinated,” Cox, who is a Latter-day Saint, said the church has been “incredibly helpful.”

He noted the church has circulated photographs of church leaders getting the vaccine and issued statements urging church members to “help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization” because “vaccinations administered by competent medical professionals protect health and preserve life.”

Cox also noted President Russell M. Nelson is a renowned medical doctor, “and so he understands explicitly the importance of this vaccine. In fact, he said that this is what we’ve been praying for, that this is the miracle that we needed and that we’ve hoped for.”

Cox said church leaders “explicitly encourage people to get vaccinated. They didn’t just say, ‘You know, it’s up to you, whatever you want to do.’ They said, ‘We think you should do this, but we recognize that you have that choice,’ which is the right answer.”

Asked what he’s going to “challenge” rural Utah Republicans to get vaccinated, Cox said he’s “going to do just that, and I have done that very explicitly.”

“We know there’s only so much we can do, but we’re going to do all that we can. We’re going to continue to encourage,” Cox said, adding the state is “looking at incentives” and what’s worked in other states.

“But I’ve said all along,” Cox added, “I think the best incentive is not dying. I think the best incentive is not being hospitalized.”

Why Cox called on Utahns to ‘pray for rain’

Stead Sellars also asked about Cox’s recent appeal to all Utahns — regardless of religious affiliation — to pray for rain amid the drought. She asked about “balancing that scientific message with the religious message.”

“I believe both of those messages are critically important,” Cox said. “We have to do our part, and that’s why we’re working so hard, especially on the conservation message right now.”

Cox said several bills are being drafted with the Utah Legislature to “improve conservation,” including looking at removing unnecessary grass in businesses and perhaps churches.

Additionally, Cox said he’s “unabashedly a religious person” — along with many in Utah.

“Utah’s full of religious people who believe in a higher power. And the one thing that we can’t control is the weather. ... And so, I’ve asked that we petition deity,” Cox said. “We have a long history of that here in the state of Utah, of governors in times of drought or times of crisis who have asked the citizens to petition deity, whatever you believe in, whatever god you believe in ... that we put those positive energies into one, positive change in ourselves, and then a hope that a higher power can help us through these difficult times.”

How is the drought impacting Utah farmers?

Cox, who himself is a farmer with mainly alfalfa fields in Fairview, Sanpete County, said farmers are “really struggling the most” amid the drought.

“Most farmers, including my own farm, we’re down about 70% of what we would normally expect for water usage this time of year. Many of us have chosen just not to water,” he said, adding about half his farm hasn’t been watered at all “so there’s no crop production on that.”

The result is a chain reaction on animals that rely on that hay, “which then impacts, of course, the price of meats and the price of food” in Utah, across the West, and across the country and parts of the world, he said.

“So that’s something we’re deeply concerned about. We’re working with our partners, working with the Department of Agriculture to make sure that they can survive this year,” Cox said. They’re hoping the drought will recede by next year.

Will Utah increase its water storage?

As a partner in the Colorado River Compact, Cox said Utah has been having “lots of conversations” about expanding water storage. In the past, compacts with neighboring Western states have “served us well,” but “unfortunately there’s not as much water as planned, and so those negotiations will continue over the next few years as that compact is up for renewal.”

The conversations revolve around “Can we increase storage capacity?” Cox said. “Where will that storage take place? And how will those water rights be affected?”

Cox was also firm that there’s “no question” and the “data is very clear” that climate change is “playing a role.”

“What we do know is that over the past decade especially we have seen fairly significant warming in the West, and so that is exacerbating these periods of drought that we’re now experiencing,” he said.

That means Utahns and Americans have to “plan accordingly in multiple ways,” Cox said. No. 1, “doing what we can to improve climate change,” which he called a long-term issue, and No. 2, “making sure that we’re conserving, we’re storing water so that we have water for the next five years.”