Poll: More than a third of Utahns are changing their holiday behavior because of COVID-19. Here’s why virus is still a ‘big deal’ for some
Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll also found more than 40% say COVID-19 isn’t having any effect this season
For Betsy Ryan, COVID-19 can’t be ignored just because it’s the holiday season.
Before the pandemic, the 39-year-old from Centerville said there was little concern about any signs of sickness during family gatherings. That changed, she said, after “going through the experience of COVID-19 and seeing how destructive it can be, for especially immunocompromised people or people in my family with some health issues.”
She and just about everyone in her family has had COVID-19 at least once, including an uncle who had to be hospitalized.
“My parents are aging and I have a brother who had lots of respiratory issues as a baby and so he’s susceptible,” she said. “My uncle was in the ICU for like a month two Christmases ago. We thought we’d lost him, we thought he was a goner. He recovered, but that was really scary for us.”
Ryan is among the more than a third of Utahns who say COVID-19 has affected their behavior when it comes to celebrating the holidays in the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. While just 9% said COVID-19 has had a great deal of impact, just over a quarter, including Ryan, say the virus has somewhat changed them.
Another 25.1% said no, COVID-19 hasn’t altered how they mark the holidays very much, and 43.5% said the virus had no impact at all. The poll, conducted Nov. 18-23 of 802 registered Utah voters by Dan Jones and Associates, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points.
Now, Ryan said she’s “more likely to disclose if I’m not feeling well, take my symptoms more seriously, just notice things more, and probably be more on the conservative side.” Her vigilance is shared by family members who she said would rethink a get-together rather than risk spreading the virus.
“Even Thanksgiving, if a family member had tested positive or been sick, we would have just canceled the whole thing, or moved its location, which is so different than we used to be about sickness,” said Ryan, who sees herself as looking out for others who may not be as young or healthy as she is.
But she stopped short of saying Utahns who aren’t changing their behaviors due to COVID-19 this holiday season are increasing the chances she or her family members could get sick.
“That’s hard to say, because I do feel like the risk is my own responsibility,” Ryan said, adding, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world (where) you don’t think it’s a big deal? It’s a big deal for a lot of people, and has been. So many people have lost people. It’s a pretty closed-minded and self-centered approach.”
On Friday, the Utah Department of Health and Human Services reported 17 new deaths in the state from COVID-19 and nearly a 10% increase in the seven day average case count, along with elevated coronavirus levels at all of the 34 sewage treatment sites where samples were collected for testing.
“We were expecting this and we expect it to go up. Will it be as high as last year? Probably not. COVID’s got competition now from the flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus),” said Han Kim, a public health professor at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
The toll of COVID-19 may be being seen as “the price we pay for normality,” Kim said.
“I think this is not just a specific thing for Utah, but all over the country. Folks are ready to move on. We’ve been trying to warn them about this ‘tripledemic’ and it just seems like it’s not making much of a dent anymore. People are just tired of being hypervigilant about infectious diseases,” he said.
The professor said he believes some Utahns answered the poll question based on their politics, not their actions.
“Even in that ‘I haven’t changed anything at all’ (response category), they’ll think twice if they’re in a room and someone is coughing. I guarantee they’re aware that, ‘Oh, I should probably get away,’” Kim said. “I think there is a level of awareness in all of us.”
Still, the poll results show most Utahns are thinking about COVID-19 — even if it’s not very much — as they go about their holiday activities.
“That actually is a hopeful sign for public health, that there are some long-term changes. In the majority of people, it’s on their mind and they’re balancing their lives with just awareness. They’re not stressing out,” Kim said, adding that’s the reaction public health officials want to see.
“We’re not saying that everyone should shut down and stay at home. We’re saying, understand what your own risks are and the risks to other people around you and balance your actions. We’re not saying take these extreme measures,” he said. “We’re giving people that agency to make their own decisions.”
Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said the latest poll results are similar to what pollsters found earlier this year when they measured Utahns’ level of concern over getting COVID-19 or the flu. Only 30% of Utahns were concerned in October about getting either disease.
“Leaning into the holidays, whereas a lot of people are wanting to move on from COVID, it’s still enough in people’s minds that if you have a cough, if you’ve recently been sick, then you might wear a mask to dinner. You might keep your distance from a family member who would be at risk,” Lyon Cotti said.
Even the Utahns who said their holiday behavior hadn’t changed very much because of COVID-19 in the current poll might put on a mask or skip an event if they test positive, she said. “Really, the majority of Utahns, to either a very, very small degree or a great degree, will still have a change in their behavior because of COVID.”