Soter: Why Is Utah Lifting the Mask Mandate before Vaccinating At-Risk Groups?

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Abu Asib

Utah State Capitol on April 2, 2020. (Photo by Abu Asib | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Theadora Soter, Opinion Writer

 

When I was 9 years old, I was diagnosed with asthma. My diagnosis wasn’t surprising since it runs in my family, but even so, it has been a struggle I’ve had to navigate for the majority of my life. When COVID-19 hit, that struggle intensified. Here was this uncharted virus killing people left and right, especially people like me: people with underlying respiratory conditions. COVID-19 turned my life, like so many others’, completely upside down. I’ve lived in agonizing anxiety that has only sharpened since the lockdown ended.

When the school year started and I had to go back to work for financial reasons, my fear escalated dramatically. My only hope was that the vaccine would soon arrive and save me from my justified agoraphobia, and yet that wasn’t the case. When the Utah vaccine requirements were released, asthma was not on the list. In fact, it was explicitly excluded from the list. The requirement for respiratory diseases states: “Severe chronic respiratory disease (other than asthma) including severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, fibrosing lung disease, bronchiectasis, or cystic fibrosis.” I was shocked by this. The only morally acceptable choice was to wait in my chronic anxiety until the list broadened. But only now, nearly three months since the vaccine rollout began, do I qualify to access it, along with every other Utahn 16 and older. After thorough research of the system in place for Utah’s vaccine distribution, I’m not convinced that my decision to wait was the right one. If I’m convinced of anything it’s that Utah’s distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has been less than adequate and must be reconsidered for the well-being of the state.

Utah has received 1,321,750 doses and have only administered 1,137,511 as of March 23. States like Wisconsin, on the other hand, have used 92.82% of their vaccine doses. But then again, places like Wisconsin care about their residents enough to open requirements to people in almost all essential professions, including people in the food industry and those that operate public transportation. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same about Utah.

Utah also ranks 50th in the country concerning the percentage of the population that has been fully vaccinated, which is 9.6% as of this writing. Comparatively, there are 14 states nationwide that have already vaccinated more than 28% of their constituents.

These saddening numbers surely have a lot to do with the vaccine hesitancy that we have seen across the country, especially in places like Utah, because of the conservative majority’s illogical yielding to bizarre conspiracy theories. Perhaps this is the reason that informative fact #6 of the seven on Utah’s coronavirus webpage is that “COVID-19 vaccines don’t contain microchips or tracking devices.”

Or maybe it is why David Glenn, a pharmacist at HRx Pharmacy in Holladay, Utah, has had such a hard time booking vaccine appointments. When I talked to Glenn the first week his pharmacy began scheduling appointments, he said, “We’re only getting a hundred of the Johnson & Johnson on a weekly basis. And the Pfizer is coming in about 1100 something. I forget the exact number, but it’s just over a thousand. This week, we didn’t have that many appointments scheduled. It’s the first week and so we weren’t sure we could use all those [vaccines].” He went on to explain that the state had to pick up around 500 vaccines from him at the beginning of the week to take to other distribution centers, but it is unknown if they were able to be used when they arrived.

Whatever the ripple effect of vaccine aversion, our elected officials realize that it is problematic and will continue to be in the future. Gov. Spencer Cox recently said in a Salt Lake Tribune article that “starting into April and May, our biggest concern is going to be vaccine hesitancy, like, how do we convince people to get this vaccine because we have so much of it.” Vaccine hesitancy in Utah will continue to increase the percentage of wasted vaccines the state has seen thus far.

My greatest concern, though — the reason I felt I had to write this article — is the fact that Utah is lifting the statewide mask mandate on April 10. This means people like me who are high risk for COVID-19 but not high risk enough to have been prioritized for vaccines will not only be vulnerable to the virus due to lack of vaccination but will also not have the protection of masks. Even so, we will still be forced to go to work, school, grocery stores and elsewhere to ensure our livelihood.

After his initial announcement that all Utah adults would be eligible to receive the vaccine on April 1, Cox moved that date up to March 24. While this change technically allows all residents 16 and older access to the vaccine, it also ensures that the system will be overwhelmed — meaning not all Utahns will be able to guarantee their appointments in time for the mask mandate removal. Furthermore, unless the state distributes the Johnson & Johnson vaccine exclusively from March 24 forward, it is chronologically impossible that currently ineligible adults will be fully vaccinated by the time the mask mandate is lifted. These irresponsible choices of the Utah State Government are beyond unjust and the fact that our elected officials are touting them as the opposite is beyond ignorant; it’s inhumane.

Before writing this article, I asked 25 college students if they’d lie to get the vaccine if they knew doses were being thrown away. 14 of them said yes. People, especially those at risk of serious illness from COVID-19, want the vaccine; and they are the ones who should get it. Instead of labelling them “line-jumpers” or “unethical,” we should recognize that Utah’s distribution system is flawed, and demand that the state offer real protections to critical populations before lifting the mask mandate.

 

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@SoterTheadora