More than three-quarters of Utahns support Gov. Spencer Cox’s “steady state” COVID-19 plan to start treating the virus like the flu and other diseases with limited outbreaks rather than as an ongoing emergency, according to the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
And while 40% of Utahns believe it will still take a year or more for life to get back to normal from a pandemic that plagued the world for more than two years, that’s down from 57% in January and 51% in February,during the last surge in cases.
Another 17% of Utahns say they’ve already moved on.
“The reality is, Utahns are looking at the situation and they are ready to transition now,” said Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. Perry said because the governor’s plan has the backing of so many Utahns, it shows Cox and legislative leaders “have found the mark for Utah” on COVID-19.
The poll found 77% approved of the shift in the state’s COVID-19 response announced by Cox in mid-February, as case counts driven by the incredibly transmissible omicron variant of the virus were falling after reaching record-breaking highs. Just 18% disapproved, and 4% didn’t know.
When it comes to getting past the pandemic, in addition to the 17% who say their lives are back to normal now — a response added for the first time to the poll — 13% of Utahns aren’t sure when that will happen, while 9% say it will take one to two months; 14%, three to six months; 7%, six to 11 months; 18% one year; and 22%, several years.
The poll was conducted March 9-21 by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics of 804 registered voters in Utah. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.45 percentage points.
The governor’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, said the state remains on track to meet the March 31 deadline Cox set for turning most of the testing and treatments for the virus over to private health care providers. Contracts the state has for providing those services will remain in place, however, to deal with any future surges.
Daily reports on cases, hospitalizations and deaths are also scheduled to end, but the state will keep watching for new COVID-19 outbreaks, including through measuring the presence of the virus in wastewater, as well as promoting vaccinations.
The governor’s office was pleased with the poll results.
“We appreciate that the vast majority of Utahns see the wisdom in downshifting the state’s response to the pandemic even as we remain ready to ramp up quickly if we experience a spike,” Napier-Pearce said. “We’re especially grateful to our health care and public health workers for getting us to this point.”
Going forward, she said the state will continue to monitor the spread of the virus, focus on promoting vaccinations “and follow other lessons learned over the past two years.”
Although mask mandates are being lifted in other states to mark the change in how the virus is being managed, that’s not the case in Utah. The Utah Legislature, which limited the powers of state and local leaders to respond to public health emergencies, overturned mask mandates approved in Salt Lake and Summit counties in January.
Perry said the governor’s announcement on COVID-19 “may not dramatically change anyone’s behavior,” but it does send an important message to Utahns.
“It’s symbolic in a very clear way, where the state of Utah is saying we’re not going to see elected leaders having press conferences about COVID routinely,” he said. “This is not something we’re expecting our government to be heavily involved in by the end of March.”
Is another surge headed to Utah?
The upbeat attitude of many Utahns comes as the United States faces yet another potential surge in COVID-19, this time from so-called “stealth omicron,” a subvariant known by scientists as BA.2 that’s believed to be even more transmissible than its predecessor and is responsible for new surges in Europe.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that as of the week ending March 19, the subvariant makes up just under 35% of all COVID-19 cases in the United States and more than 21% of the cases in the region that includes Utah.
So far, 210 subvariant cases have been identified in Utah as part of the 1,500 to 3,000 positive test samples subjected weekly to genome sequencing by the state laboratory, said Kelly Oakeson, the Utah Department of Health’s chief scientist for bioinformatics and next generation sequencing.
Utah’s subvariant cases are climbing, Oakeson said, but not as fast as previous variants, including delta, which turned Utah into the nation’s hot spot for COVID-19 last fall. Still, he said within a week or two, Utah will catch up to New York, where BA.2 is now the dominant variant.
“There is some hope,” Oakeson said. “We know boosters work really well against severe disease and hospitalization. So if a good proportion of the population is boosted, that’s going to help. We know there is some immunity and protection if you’ve been previously infected with the original omicron against BA.2.”
There no doubt will be breakthrough cases and exceptions among those who’ve had omicron, he said.
“But the idea is in the population as a whole, there’s enough immunity out there that we shouldn’t see another big, huge increase in hospitalizations and deaths,” Oakeson said. However, he added, “this virus has thrown us for a loop time and time again, and always likes to throw us curve balls so I don’t want to be, you know, too optimistic.”
‘I am a little bit tired of worrying about it’
Count Janice Gravenmier, a West Valley City dental office manager, among the Utahns who approve of the governor’s COVID-19 plan.
“We’ve all had the COVID. I’ve had it. My whole family had it. Some of the girls at work have had it. And we’ve all been fine. It hasn’t been too bad. I know the older people and immunocompromised have more trouble,” she said. But when she caught the virus a few months ago, it felt like a cold.
“I had to stay home from work but I did the housecleaning, scrubbing walls and cleaning stuff,” Gravenmier said, while taking care of other family members with COVID-19. “The grandchildren were like me, they were bouncing off the walls and having fun. They didn’t care.”
Gravenmier, who still has to wear a mask at work and helps keep surfaces at the dental office clean by repeatedly wiping them down, said she isn’t worried about the subvariant. But she said the concerns that her employer and others in the health care field continue to have mean it could be a year before life returns to normal.
“It’s going to be a while,” she said.
Kory Jasperson, of Bountiful, who retired from a post with a genetics laboratory last December, also agrees with the governor that it’s time to deal with COVID-19 differently.
“Ultimately, returning back to a little of normalcy is going to have to happen at some point. This has been going on for two years,” Jasperson said. “I think most people are kind of, not necessarily done with it — I mean there’s still precautions that are needed — but I think overall we have to start going back to some normalcy.”
Still, he said he believes it will take several years to get back to pre-pandemic life.
“Everybody is, for the most part, hyped up about COVID. I completely believe in COVID. It’s (had) significant ramifications across the world but there’s a group of the population that will have a hard time returning to normal life,” Jasperson said, even as he and others resume shopping and other everyday activities without masks.
“There’s always a possibility that a variant will be a superspreader, will be more lethal, or it will have more significant ramifications than the previous variant, or whatever the case may be,” he said, although not particularly concerned about the BA.2 subvariant.
“I think I am a little bit tired of worrying about it, but that’s not necessarily the main reason,” Jasperson said, because he and those close to him are vaccinated and boosted. “Unless you’re just going to stick in your house and then not ever go outside, you’re ultimately always going to have the opportunity of getting infected.”