On the map, the Tri-County Health District — which includes Daggett, Duchesne and Uinta counties — is right next door to the Summit County district, but the two could not possibly be farther apart in their response to the COVID pandemic and the trajectory of the disease over the last six months.
It’s a Tale of Two Districts, with one living through the worst of times and the other, if not the best, certainly much, much better. And the difference between the two is simple and obvious: Vaccines work.
If you remember back what seems like a decade to when the pandemic began, Summit County was ravaged by the virus. It was for a period of time one of the hottest hot spots in the entire United States.
It stayed at or near the top of the state when it came to having the highest per capita infection rate. Even in April, it had the third-highest infection rate, with nearly one out of every eight residents having tested positive for the virus.
The Tri-County district, meantime, was consistently posting some of the state’s lowest infection rates month after month.
But after large-scale vaccination rollouts began in January and February and the delta variant began to spread around the same time, the two health districts took shockingly different paths.
In Summit, residents turned out in droves to get their shots, so much so that as of this week 86% of the eligible residents had been fully vaccinated and 98% of eligible residents had received at least one shot — easily the best rate in the state.
Across the border in the Tri-County district, it’s the opposite story. Fewer than two out of every five eligible residents are fully vaccinated and less than half have had a first shot — the lowest rate in the state.
The results, as you might imagine, are predictable.
Over the last five months, Summit County’s average monthly infection rate is 30% lower than it was in February, March and April of this year — even as cases around the rest of the state have shot up.
Tri-County has experienced an 90% increase over the same span and, over the past four months, has had more people per capita infected than any other district in the state. It is 27% higher than the second-highest — Tooele County — and 2.7 times the rate in Summit.
“It truly is a marvel of science that we have this vaccine available in such a short matter of time,” Dr. Phil Bondurant, director of the Summit County Health Department, told me recently. “The outcome we’re experiencing is what anybody in a public health position … and the community as a whole would want to see coming out of the COVID response.”
The health department, he said, can only offer the shots. It’s up to individuals to get them. So he credits the residents of the county who jumped at the chance to get vaccinated.
“I’m super proud of Summit County as a whole, but I’m not surprised by the response we’ve received,” Bondurant said.
Unfortunately, it’s not just infections where Tri-County is suffering the consequences of its low vaccination rate.
A year into the pandemic, just 251 residents in the three counties were hospitalized due to COVID. But, in the last seven months, there have been another 446 residents hospitalized, a hospitalization rate that is more than double the second-highest district and nearly triple the state average.
And in that same span, Tri-County is tied with the Central Utah Health District for having the highest death rate in the state, as well.
By now, the vast majority of us know the vaccines work. But when I waded into these numbers, I had no idea how stark the turn-around would be.
On one hand, you have Summit, which suffered through the first year of the pandemic but had residents who stampeded to get vaccinated and now enjoy the lowest infection rate and the second-lowest hospitalization rate in recent months.
And you have the neighboring health district, which had experienced the lowest infection rate, but with low vaccinations and the emergence of the delta variant is now enduring shockingly high infection rates, the highest hospitalization rate and the highest rate of deaths in the state.
The takeaway could not possibly be more clear.
“[Getting vaccinated] is critical. It’s crucial. It’s key,” said Bondurant of the Summit County experience. “It’s been the driving force, because it really is the end game to this pandemic — reaching that threshold of 80% vaccinated, that has been a very important part of where we are now.”