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SALT LAKE CITY — A majority of Utahns are concerned about getting COVID-19 as the omicron variant continues to sweep through the state, but their biggest worry is that someone close to them will become seriously ill from the virus, according to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll.
The poll suggests that Utahns may be resigned to contracting COVID-19, Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City said, because they're weary of a pandemic that's entering a third year with no end in sight.
"I think it's a sense of resignation that folks are having. They're just tired of this. They want this to be over and we've had the worst surge yet," the professor said. "Basically admitting to oneself that, 'Yeah, I'm going to get it' is a sense of relief."
That doesn't mean they've given up on worrying about the impact of the disease on others, though, Kim said.
"Utah does have a stronger sense of the collective than perhaps surrounding states around the Intermountain West because of the predominant culture," he said. "I think that helps. When you have a sense of collective, when you have a sense that what I do affects my neighbors, then public health is something that is more readily acceptable."
Jason Perry, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, offered a similar assessment.
"This may be one of those Utah things where people are largely worried about those around them" rather than themselves, he said. "We may be in that phase of the COVID cycle as well where so many people have been exposed and know people who have either had it or have it now."
That familiarity makes Utahns "more accepting of the realities of COVID," Perry said, including the likelihood that the incredibly transmissible omicron variant may eventually infect just about everyone who isn't vaccinated against the virus as well as many who are, although the shots still offer strong protection against severe illness.
The poll found omicron, which has set records for cases counts and hospitalizations in the state, has 56% of Utahns concerned about contracting COVID-19, with just under a quarter saying they're very concerned. But 43% are either not very or not at all concerned about catching the virus, and 1% aren't sure about omicron's impact.
Just 8% of Utahns fear becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 at this point in the pandemic. However, seeing someone close to them getting that sick from the virus ranked at the top of their concerns, with 20% selecting that option. The strain on the economy was their next pick at 18%, followed by the strain on hospitals at 17%.
Continued vaccine and mask mandates to slow the spread of the virus ranked fourth, the choice of 15%. Eight percent said additional COVID-19 deaths is their single biggest concern and 2%, access to testing that's been so overwhelmed that Gov. Spencer Cox has advised Utahns with symptoms to skip the swab and just stay home.
Another 8% said their chief worry was something not listed, and 4% said they had no concern about COVID-19.
The latest poll for the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics was conducted Jan. 20-28 by Dan Jones & Associates of 815 registered voters throughout the state. The poll results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.43%
Mari Lindsay, a human resources coordinator from Bountiful who's also a Weber State University student, was pleased a majority of Utahns share her concern about getting COVID-19.
"We tend to see people out and about without masks anymore. I know that we have a lower vaccination rate than I personally would like to see. So I find it reassuring that's the case because maybe then there are people taking the precautions like I try to," Lindsay said, making an effort "to protect me like I do for them."
She said she is fully vaccinated, like 60% of all Utahns, but knows that won't prevent her from getting the virus.
"I live with my aging parents so the concern is always there if I get it, I pass it to them," Lindsay said. Her biggest single worry is that the strain omicron has placed on hospitals "because if someone I'm close to does get ill, including my parents, then I want to know they can get the care that they need."
In the poll, Utahns placed COVID-19's strain on the economy above the toll the virus is taking on hospitals, but Lindsay said she believes that response comes from the same shared "need to want everyone around us to be thriving."
Todd Sudweeks, an executive with a payment processing firm from Layton, said he's not very worried about catching COVID-19. He said he and his wife are fully vaccinated and have gotten their booster shots, and his children will be vaccinated soon.
"The symptoms are extremely mild, from everyone I've known that's gotten it, almost not even a cold," Sudweeks said. "I've had two of my children test positive and they had a low-grade fever for a very short period of time and then were fine. Nothing else, so it was very mild."
Even though his children, aged 9 and 11, easily weathered their recent bout with the virus, he said his biggest fear is that someone close to him will become seriously ill from COVID-19. Still, Sudweeks said he's not sure what can be done to keep that from happening at this point.
"I don't know that there's a lot that we can do. I think it's to the point where I don't think it's a matter of if you're going to get the virus, I think it's a matter of when. I think we've seen that with this strain, being extremely contagious," he said.
But other versions of the virus will likely follow omicron, Sudweeks said.
"We have to learn to live with it more than how do we prevent it. I don't want to be doing masks and isolation for the next 20 years," he said, predicting life in Utah could return to normal in six months. The poll found that 57% of Utahns believe that will take at least a year.
Sudweeks said he bases his optimism on COVID-19 cases coming down, as omicron appears to have hit a peak in many parts of the country. In Utah, case counts have dropped but are not considered accurate because of the new policy discouraging testing. Hospitalizations remain high in the state.
"I think you've got a lot of people that are tired of trying to prevent something that's going to happen," Sudweeks said. "We have long enough to go get vaccines and boosters. I think you've got some of the people that are tired of being mandated on what they can and can't do."