The LDS Church could supercharge Utah’s drive to the vaccination finish line, Robert Gehrke writes

Ardent anti-vaxxers are probably a lost cause, but the reluctant could be persuaded.

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Church President Russell M. Nelson receives the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

A week ago, several hundred members of the anti-everything crowd got together in the town of Moroni (pop. 1,536) to air grievances about vaccines and masks and government and, well, just about everything.

It was advertised as a veritable “Who’s Who” of the right-wing resistance — government stand-offer Ammon Bundy, conspiracy entrepreneur Eric Moutsos, state school board bomb-thrower Natalie Cline, presidentially pardoned off-road enthusiast and state Rep. Phil Lyman.

To cap off their “Night of Liberty,” they lit ablaze a giant syringe labeled “Medical Tyranny,,” subtly symbolizing the fire of their never-vax zeal. While Moutsos live-streamed the inferno, families stood and gawked. Some took pictures while some kids danced around.

It’s a safe assumption that, while 56% of vaccine-eligible Utahns have received their first shot, these attendees fall into that needle-averse minority.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

So, too, I’m willing to bet, does the rabble that crashed the Granite School Board meeting earlier this week, jeering and taunting speakers, demanding the board lift the state-imposed mask mandate in schools. Finally the board scrapped the meeting and adjourned, and one angry protester ran to the front and shouted that, under Robert’s Rules of Order, they were now in charge.

These folks don’t understand my rules.

Nor will any amount of public outreach or education or advertising about the importance of vaccinations will reach these folks. They’re a lost cause.

They are also a sliver of the population of the state. Between that 56% who were eager to get this miracle shot and the small percentage of Petri-dish Patriots is an important segment of people who potentially could be reached with the right message from the right messenger.

Who is this yet-to-be-vaccinated crowd? Probably who you might suspect they are.

If you compare the counties and the health districts with the lowest vaccination levels, they have a few things in common. For one thing, they’re rural. In Duchesne, Uintah and Daggett counties, just over a third of the eligible population has received a shot.

Second, the more Republican the residents of a county or health district are, the more likely they are to be lagging behind — and, likewise, the Bluer the area, the higher they likely are.

In the eight counties where Donald Trump won 80% of the vote or more, two out of five eligible Utahns have had one shot, while in the three counties Joe Biden won, the figure is three out of five — including Summit County, where 82% of eligible residents have had their first shot.

(This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Davis County, for example, isn’t far behind Grand County in administering first doses, and actually has a higher percentage of fully vaccinated residents than Salt Lake).

Finally, men are lagging behind women. Statewide, 44% of women and 38% of men have had at least one shot.

That’s a lot of numbers, and it all fits in line with national surveys that show white Republican men have expressed the most reluctance — even though that has softened somewhat.

We could try to bridge that partisan gap by noting that the vaccines were, indeed, developed during the Trump presidency, that the former president was vaccinated, as was his wife Melania and daughter Ivanka. Back in March, Trump urged all of his followers to get vaccinated.

Utah politicians trusted in conservative circles like Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Chris Stewart and Burgess Owens could be more vocal — depoliticizing the shots.

But, as one Utah communications expert told me, government sources are not the best messengers. It needs to come from someone with expertise and authority, like a doctor. It’s why, I believe, we saw Gov. Spencer Cox shift his message somewhat when he was asked Thursday about the vaccine resistant Utahns.

“There are always people out there who are sharing bad information, who are bad actors, who are purposely trying to sow division. And there are people who are just skeptical,” Cox said. “If you have questions or concerns, Facebook is not the place to get those answers, but your doctor is.”

There’s one more trusted voice in this community that could be an absolute game-changer: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

I’m not saying the church has been on the sidelines. Far from it.

LDS President Russell Nelson said he prayed for the vaccine and he urged members to do the same. He and his fellow leaders were photographed receiving their shots and counseled members to do the same. The church has supported vaccination efforts globally and encouraged — but not required — missionaries to be vaccinated.

But the church is uniquely situated — with the trust and moral leadership among a vast portion of the population, including those who might need convincing and with an infrastructure of ward houses and stake centers and volunteers no other organization can bring to bear.

In short, the church could single-handedly supercharge our lagging vaccination efforts in a way no other organization could and rocket us to the pandemic finish line.