SALT LAKE CITY — State incentives for Utahns who get the COVID-19 vaccine may yet happen, Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday.
"I think there is a possibility," the governor said during the taping of his monthly news conference on PBS Utah, confirming that discussions with the Utah Legislature's Republican leadership are continuing despite their initial reluctance to support the type of giveaways that at least 24 other states are offering to encourage vaccinations.
Cox also raised concerns about the spread in Utah of what's now known as the delta variant of the coronavirus, first detected in India. The variant, causing rises in cases in other parts of the world, was first identified in Utah late last month, and 42 cases have been found so far, according to the Utah Department of Health.
"The delta variant is here. We believe that the delta variant is growing," the governor said, adding he expects more cases to be reported Friday, but not among those who have been vaccinated against the deadly virus, even as overall COVID-19 cases are increasing slightly and younger, healthier Utahns are being stricken.
"Scientists have found it is a more contagious variant that is easily spread and also lasts a little longer and can be a little more damaging to people," he said. "The good news is, the vaccines work against the delta variant, they work just as well against the delta variant as the other variants, so we really can protect people."
But without the shots, Utahns are vulnerable to hospitalization and even death, the governor warned.
"The answer, as always, is to get vaccinated. There are people younger than age 50 in our hospitals right now on oxygen. These are people with no prior health conditions and they can't breath well enough on their own and are requiring hospitalization because they were not vaccinated," he said. "It's very sad."
Then there are the conversations Cox said he's had "multiple times" in recents weeks with people whose loved ones are hospitalized "in dire circumstances" or have even died "because they've refused to get vaccinated. Completely preventable."
The goal, the governor said, is for 70% of the state's adults to have gotten at least one dose of vaccine by July 4. Currently, 63.4% of all Utahns 18 and older have met that mark, and 55.6% are fully vaccinated, meaning it's been two weeks since their final dose.
"It's looking like we're not going to get there unless we have a big surge of vaccinations over the next couple of weeks. We're hoping that will happen. We're pulling out all the stops to make that happen," he said. So far, however, that does not include offering state incentives, although those are still in the works.
"We have had conversations with legislative leadership around the potential for some sort of incentive or inducement for people to get the vaccination. There hasn't been much interest in that, but it is correct that we continue to have those discussions," Cox said.
That would not be a violation of state law or the Utah Constitution, which prohibits lawmakers from authorizing "any game of chance, lottery or gift enterprise under any pretense or for any purpose," the governor said, adding, "I don't think there are any legal issues around that."
Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, however, has said he believes a lottery would violate the state constitution. Cox had wanted Utah to follow the trend started by Ohio's "Vax-a-Million" lottery that's giving away $1 million cash prizes and full-ride state college scholarships in weekly drawings.
Now, though, the talks between the governor and legislative leaders are focused on some other type of giveaway, such as gift cards or discounts. Although the Biden administration has said vaccine incentives could be paid for out of federal COVID-19 relief funds, Cox said Thursday he'd like to see Utah's business community offer more.
"We've seen that nationally to some extent," the governor said, with companies like Krispy Kreme giving away donuts to vaccinated customers. "I would love to see more of that locally. If we can help just those people who are kind of on the fence right now, to get them closer" to choosing to be vaccinated against the virus.
The state, along with the Salt Lake Chamber, have contacted 10,000 businesses around Utah, urging them to offer opportunities and incentives to get the shots. Derek Miller, the chamber's president and CEO, has said he hopes lawmakers will consider using some of the federal dollars to boost Utah's vaccination rate.