More than two-thirds of Utahns aren’t concerned about contracting COVID-19, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll, even though the public is being warned a new wave of the virus is likely coming this fall.
But with President Joe Biden recently declaring the pandemic is over, just how worried should Utahns be?
“That’s a very complicated question,” Dr. Hannah Imlay, a University of Utah Health assistant professor of internal medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, told reporters during a virtual news conference Monday. “Obviously, it’s very clear that it’s not that people aren’t getting COVID anymore.”
Utahns, though, don’t seem fazed despite what The New York Times says is currently a daily national average of fewer than 60,000 new cases of COVID-19, along with more than 400 deaths from the virus, more than twice as many lives lost as would be expected in a typical bad flu season.
The poll found just 32% of Utahns are worried about getting the virus responsible for a total of more than a million cases and 5,000 deaths in the state since the start of the pandemic in March 2020 — and nearly a quarter, 24%, are only somewhat concerned, while 8% are very concerned.
But most Utahns polled, 36%, are not at all concerned and 32% are not very concerned about becoming infected.
The poll was conducted for the Deseret News and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics by Dan Jones & Associates Sept. 3-21 of 815 registered voters in Utah, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.43 percentage points.
A shifting response
Imlay said there has been a move away from a pandemic response to the virus, a point Biden administration officials said the president was trying to make when he talked about the status of the virus at the first Detroit Auto Show held since the global outbreak in early 2020.
“By no means is this done,” the U. doctor said. “That said, a lot of policy decisions and choices that we as a population have made, have sort of really transitioned this from being a large-scale public health response to a response that hopefully is more sustainable.”
That means treating COVID-19 more like an endemic disease because she said, “we don’t think this virus is going to go away. We think there will be ongoing, probably high numbers of cases nationally, and trying to emphasize the tools that each person can use, so more on a personal level of protection than a population level of protection.”
At the top of her list of COVID-fighting tools is getting vaccinated against the virus, including the new updated booster shot targeting newer versions of the original omicron variant that drove cases to record levels at the beginning of the year, Imlay said, especially since “we are likely to have another wave this fall.”
In May, an unnamed Biden administration official predicted during a background briefing with The Washington Post that the U.S. could be hit by 100 million new COVID-19 cases in the fall even without the emergence of a new variant. A year ago, Utah and the rest of the country was struggling with the delta variant of the virus.
Utah’s pandemic response shifted last spring, when Gov. Spencer Cox said it was time for the state to deal with COVID-19 the same way it does the flu or other endemic disease. Most state treatments and testing were moved to private providers, and state lawmakers had already restricted mask mandates and other mitigation measures.
The poll results suggest Utahns see the virus playing a less prominent role in their lives, at lest for now, Hinckley Institute Director Jason Perry said.
‘An indication of where COVID-19 is right now’
“This is not a sign of people not paying attention or not caring,” Perry said of what he called a “significant portion” of Utahns who are just not concerned about whether they come down with the virus. “It’s an indication of where COVID is right now in our community.”
Utahns are less worried now, he said, because they’ve “sadly had a lot of experience with COVID. Many to most have had it. On top of that, a decent percentage has had their vaccine or booster. Combine that fact with that it’s not the headlines currently.”
Perry noted the level of concern has risen and fallen in previous polls this year.
In February, a majority of Utahns, 56%, were concerned about catching COVID-19 even as a record-breaking surge of cases driven by the omicron variant of the virus was winding down. By April, with the change to the state’s pandemic response in place, nearly three-quarters of Utahns were no longer worried.
July saw concern heading up again, with the number of Utahns who said they weren’t worried about getting the virus falling to 55% as the still-dominant omicron subvariant known as BA.5 swept into the state. Still, most Utahns said in July they were comfortable engaging in activities like going to church or dining out.
What’s been a constant in the polling is the political split, with 76% of Republicans in the current poll not concerned about getting the virus, compared to 42% of Democrats who aren’t worried. Perry said the COVID-19 response has “been put through a political filter from the very beginning. That seems to persist.”
What Utahns say about their level of concern
Ronald Whitaker, an 80-year-old retired medical technologist who lives in Taylorsville, said he’s among those Utahns who are not at all concerned about contracting COVID-19 even though his age and other factors put him at higher risk.
“You can’t spend all of your time worrying about things over which you have very little control,” Whitaker said.
He said no one he knows has died from the virus, and that he believes the pandemic has passed. So although there are currently at least three people with COVID-19 who live nearby, Whitaker said he’s not planning to get another booster shot.
“I’m not going to panic because I know people that have it,” he said. ”I’ve been around sick people my whole life. You can’t worry about all of the things you could get when you probably won’t. I worry far more about being in an auto accident.”
But Renée Bolieau, 56, a technical writer who lives in Brigham City, said she’s been very concerned about getting COVID-19 after seeing two co-workers die of the disease and had made sure she received not only the initial vaccinations but also a booster shot.
Then she caught the coronavirus from her sister, who works in a funeral home in Roosevelt, during a recent visit. Both were extremely sick, Bolieau said, although her wife ended up with mild cold-like symptoms when she got COVID-19, too.
“I don’t ever want that again. It was bad,” Bolieau said of her weeklong bout with COVID-19, adding she felt “lucky” not to have been hospitalized. “I have fibrillation issues and it went nuts. It was very erratic heartbeats, a little bit of shortness of breath when I would get up and move around. I lost my smell. I lost my taste. Yeah, it was rough.”
She’s feeling better now, and venturing out to events while wearing a mask.
“I don’t want to stop living,” Bolieau said. “But I’ll be cautious.”
The poll results did not surprise her.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of it’s political,” Bolieau said. “They’re not thinking about what it could do to them. They’re thinking, ‘I have a right.” I think that’s what it is for a lot of people in Utah, at least in the outskirt areas.” There, she said, people believe, “‘I won’t get it. I’m tough. I’m just around cows.’”