COVID-19 may finally tap the brakes on Utah’s blazing fast population growth

Doctors and demographers say the coronavirus pandemic may finally slow Utah’s rapid population growth — at least in the short term.

“You will probably have less population growth,” said Mike Hollingshaus, senior demographer for the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “You have more death. You have fewer births. You have less in-migration.”

The prognosis for this triple impact came during an online discussion sponsored by the institute Wednesday about how COVID-19 may change Utah’s normal trends in growth, health and the economy.

Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the institute, said, for example, “If you’re having children, this whole situation has got to give you pause about whether or not you want to bring another life into the world” amid contagious disease and economic worries.

(Photo courtesy of the University of Utah) Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Demographers said birthrates often drop in tough times.

“In bad economic times, people will be nervous to have children. That happened during the Great Depression,” Hollingshaus said. It may be even more likely now because effective contraception is more widely available, and “there’s very little social stigma in postponing birth … even in Utah.”

Hollingshaus added that births already had been declining in Utah before the pandemic, down from 53,000 in 2010 to 47,000 in 2019.

“There’s a lot of reasons for that,” he said. “It’s expensive to have a child.”

COVID-19 also is expected to increase death rates in the near term — and not just from the disease itself.

Perlich said isolation and restrictions heighten “the mental health impact here and the potential for increased suicide and the deaths of despair.” Hollinghaus added that stress on the medical system may increase deaths from other causes where people did not seek treatment out of fear of COVID-19 infection or from lack of accessibility.

Dr. Brian Shiozawa, associate vice president for health policy at the University of Utah, said COVID-19 is hitting the poor and minorities harder — especially in places such as American Indian reservations, where living conditions often “are appalling when you talk about crowding or hygiene — no running water for example.”

He noted doctors also are seeing a “west side effect,” where COVID-19 cases are more common in areas on Salt Lake County’s west side among lower-income and minority populations because they may crowd several families into an apartment or house. Also, “some of these people are in essential businesses. ... They can’t stay home, so it’s really disproportionately affecting some of the groups.”

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Dr. Brian Shiozawa, associate vice president of health policy at the University of Utah.

Perlich said the pandemic may offer an opportunity to find and address such problems in the future.

COVID-19 also potentially may slow in-migration, at least for a time.

“You’ll see a decrease in migration all over,” Hollingshaus said. “We’re sort of cautioned right now against moving at all, even outside of our house. So that becomes difficult.”

Perlich said that in-migration by retired people, which has been important in Utah, may dwindle because retirement investments likely took a hit during the economic downturn.

Utah in recent years had attracted extra in-migration because its economy after the Great Recession did better than many other areas. Now, most places are in a deep downturn and few jobs are available.

If Utah again manages to bounce back more quickly than other places, Perlich said that may become a growth magnet and perhaps “we’ll have more diverse flows of people to the state than we had anticipated.”

Perlich expects slower growth in Utah to be temporary. She still believes that Utah’s population by 2050 will be about the same as previously projected (5.4 million, up from 3.16 million now) as immigration will likely pick up because of advantages the state offers.

Hollingshaus generally agrees.

“In 20 or 30 years, when you look back on it, most likely it’s just going to be a little blip. ... But that will probably depend on our actions now. How will we address the situation?”