How experts say the COVID-19 pandemic will affect Utah births, deaths and demographics

How experts say the COVID-19 pandemic will affect Utah births, deaths and demographics

(Courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Demographers believe the COVID-19 pandemic will have some noticeable effects on Utah’s population makeup.

But they believe that when looking back at Utah’s population growth history in 20 years, the pandemic will likely be just a blip on the timeline.

"Human behavior is incredibly unpredictable," said Mike Hollingshaus, a demographer with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.

He discussed how COVID-19 might affect Utah’s demographic makeup at a Gardner institute panel May 13. Four others joined Hollingshaus for the discussion: Gardner institute director Natalie Gochnour, Gardner institute director of demographic research Pamela Perlich, U. associate professor Brian Shiozawa and Gardner institute researcher Mallory Bateman.

The panelists predicted the pandemic will lead to more deaths and fewer births in Utah.

However, Perlich noted that 150 years of data have shown Utah is a state that grows. So while the pandemic will hinder that growth in the short term, she predicted that Utah will lead out and be a "beacon of light" post-pandemic.

"I’m sort of this eternal optimist about Utah," she said.

Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute director of demographic research Pamela Perlich speaks during a virtual panel discussion on May 13, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)
Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute director of demographic research Pamela Perlich speaks during a virtual panel discussion on May 13, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute)

Overall, populations only change in three main ways: through births, deaths and migration, Hollingshaus said.

The pandemic is hindering migration significantly, since many areas have been under stay-at-home orders, and nonessential travel is mostly not recommended, he said.

Births have also been decreasing and deaths are increasing over the past few years, he added.

Deaths increasing, but may decline soon

There were about 14,000 deaths in Utah in 2010 and that increased to about 18,000 last year. Demographers expect that to increase as the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, but deaths could decrease after that, Hollingshaus said.

The pandemic is creating more deaths directly from COVID-19.

It also creates deaths indirectly, since people who need health care for other reasons aren’t able to get it in pandemic times due to resources being allocated elsewhere, Hollingshaus added.

Additionally, people might not seek health care out of fear that by doing so they might get exposed to the disease, he said. Deaths of despair, such as deaths from suicide, may also increase due to the stressful health and economic conditions created by COVID-19.

Hollingshaus said people should be mindful of taking care of their friends and neighbors to counteract the increased likelihood of deaths.

"Each of these deaths is a person," he said.

Mike Hollingshaus, a demographer with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, speaks during a Gardner institute virtual panel discussion on May 13, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Gardner institute)
Mike Hollingshaus, a demographer with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, speaks during a Gardner institute virtual panel discussion on May 13, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Gardner institute)

The mortality rate is currently about 1% in Utah, which puts the state in the top five for lowest mortality rates, according to Shiozawa, who is a medical doctor, former Republican Utah state senator and regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

That’s about a sixth of the national average for COVID-19 mortality rates, Shiozawa said. However, he predicted that the state may see that rate go up, especially as social distancing restrictions are gradually loosened.

"We’re going to see more deaths just because of the number of patients who have the infection," Shiozawa said.

COVID-19 may make people delay having kids

In 2019, there were about 47,000 births in Utah, but that number has been going down for the past several years.

Hollingshaus doubts that there will be a large spike in births due to the pandemic. Since many couples are holed up, sheltering in place in their homes, some have suggested that the pandemic could lead to more conceptions.

After the northeast blackout of 2003, in which power was out in some parts of New York City and Toronto for two days, some suggested the same phenomenon was taking place. But that turned out to be a myth, and didn’t really happen, Hollingshaus added.

Nothing about the pandemic suggests that will take place, he said. Highly effective contraception is readily available. There is also a lowered social stigma around postponing having children to later in life, he said.

"It’s much more widely accepted, even in Utah," Hollingshaus added.

People also might still be wary of going to the hospital and being exposed to COVID-19 patients when their baby comes, he said.

Uncertain pandemic economy, but Utah poised to respond strongly

Uncertain economic conditions created by the pandemic also may deter people from having children, the panelists said. Even outside of pandemic times, it’s more expensive to provide things for children, such as housing, child care and food, than it was for previous generations, Hollingshaus pointed out.

However, Utah has a diverse economy, a proactive education system and good health care institutions, Shiozawa said.

He predicts that Utah will recover from the pandemic and come out strong on the other side.

"It will affect us, and it will have interesting downstream effects as we look forward," Shiozawa said. "I think we can be very optimistic."

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