Utah’s political leaders are often heard to say that personal responsibility, rather than government action, is the key to a healthy and orderly society.
We are now in the middle of two real-time experiments to determine whether the people of Utah are capable of the levels of personal responsibility that will be necessary to survive two great trials — getting through the pandemic and surviving the drought.
Within the past week, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox has been pleading with us to get vaccinated, as he lacks the statutory authority to mandate or even offer incentives for those who step forward. And Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has ordered a ban on personal fireworks, an order echoed later by several other cities, though it is not certain that, by state law, cities have the power to do so.
Ideology aside, the fact is that even if the Utah Legislature would allow a statewide ban on fireworks (which it should) or the state had the stomach to impose a vaccine mandate (which would be unenforceable and divisive), it would still come down to the willingness of each and every one of us to do the right thing.
That sounds like a thin reed to cling to. Unless Utahns demonstrate their ability to do right by the common good, get vaccinated and let the months of June and July pass without any fireworks.
There can be no question that the way to set aside both the risk of the disease and the impact of shutdowns and quarantines is for the vast majority of our population to get vaccinated for COVID-19. Republican Cox and Democratic President Joe Biden have been making the same case on this for months now.
But both leaders are likely to have their hopes of reaching a 70% vaccination rate — the minimum level thought necessary to confer “herd immunity” to the nation — by July 4 be disappointed. As of Tuesday, the percentage of Utahns who had been fully vaccinated reached 41.5%.
Experts tell us that, if we could get to the 70% threshold, infection rates in Utah could drop by more than 94%
After weeks of a reassuring decline, new cases of COVID-19 in Utah spiked at 527 last Wednesday. Hospitalizations and ICU stays are also ticking up, and people under 40 continued to be counted among the dead.
The governor points out, quite accurately, that the disease continues to strike down Utahns at an alarming rate, but that nearly all of those who have come down with the disease have not been vaccinated.
Between March 23, when the vaccine was made available to Utahns age 16 and up, and June 17, Cox’s most recent press conference, some 28,000 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Utah. Of those who tested positive for the virus, 98.6% of them were unvaccinated. Similar rates of the unvaccinated show up in those who have been hospitalized due to the virus, or died of it.
“They didn’t have to die,” a visibly upset Cox said. “They don’t have to be in the hospital. But they’re dead now, and they’re in the hospital now, because they refused to get vaccinated.”
It really is as simple as that. The vaccines work. And, as explained by infectious disease experts at the University of Utah, those who exercise their right to pass on the jab are basically inviting the virus into their bloodstreams. That’s due to a deadly confluence of too many unvaccinated people and the rise of the more contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
A few months ago, it was reasonable to blame the government — state and federal — for the slow rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines. Availability was limited and systems set up for people to make appointments were balky and hard to navigate.
None of that is true today. Vaccines are available at county health departments, drug stores and pharmacy counters at neighborhood supermarkets and at pop-up clinics just about everywhere. People practically have to go out of their way to avoid the vaccine. And, when they do so, they endanger not only their own lives, but the lives of those who are either lazy or afraid as well as those who, due to age or medical condition, aren’t good candidates for the vaccine.
While passivity in the face of the pandemic threatens us all, a choice to do nothing is just what we all should be making when it comes to personal fireworks.
Just don’t. It’s too hot. The grass is too dry. The likelihood of setting a house, a neighborhood or acres of dry tinder ablaze is just too great.
Avoiding outbreaks — of coronavirus or of wildfires — is not a responsibility we can shift to the government. It belongs to every one of us.