May 27, 2020
If Utah policymakers take action today to prepare for a COVID-19 vaccine – whenever it is found to be safe and effective – they will prime Utah for a strong and sustainable economic and public health recovery from the pandemic. If we wait, that recovery could be slow, halting and inconsistent.
This is the policy conclusion suggested by recent evidence.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll reported two intriguing facts: First, the proportion of Americans expressing interest in a COVID vaccine (under 66%) is less than the proportion required to achieve herd immunity (70%). Second, the proportion of Americans planning to get the flu vaccine this fall (60%) is higher than the proportion that typically get a flu shot (less than 50%).
This suggests that Americans are increasingly open to vaccines that are proven to be safe and effective (the flu shot) due to current experience with the realities of pandemic disease, but that they have questions about whether the COVID vaccine specifically will be safe and effective. The existence of such concerns about any potential COVID vaccine makes sense, given both the unprecedented timeline that the vaccine development is following and the public’s declining trust in the federal government.
A further complicating factor to the success of any COVID vaccine is the ongoing campaign, particularly on social media, by a vocal and well-organized segment of society to oppose any and all vaccines, no matter how safe and effective they are proven to be.
The policy problem these facts point to, of course, is that a strong and sustainable economic and public health recovery from the pandemic may be impossible without herd immunity. Utahns need to be able to conveniently access a COVID vaccine, and they need to feel comfortable getting a vaccine found to be safe and effective by the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). So, what is the solution?
Fortunately, a two-part solution is suggested by the same articles that highlight the problem. First, the public has said that “they would increasingly go to pharmacies and less often to a doctor’s office or healthcare centers” to get vaccines. Utah’s current pharmacy vaccine regulation would not allow pharmacies to give a safe and effective COVID vaccine to Utahns who wanted to get it, likely leading to millions more confirmed cases of COVID-19 and billions of dollars in costs to Utah families and businesses. The Utah Department of Health and Division of Occupational Licensing – which oversees this regulation – should change it pre-emptively, to allow any FDA-approved COVID vaccine to be administered by pharmacies once it is available.
Second, the poll finds evidence that “people hesitant to take a coronavirus vaccine might reconsider, depending on safety assurances they receive.” In other words, community and thought leaders – both elected and otherwise – have an opportunity now to prepare to persuade the public that a safe and effective COVID vaccine is, in fact, safe and effective. The Public Health and Economic Emergency Commission should begin discussions to undertake such a public information effort as soon as possible.
Both parts of this solution are steps Utahns can take today to make the development of a safe and effective vaccine – whenever it happens – as beneficial as possible to the recovery of both Utah’s economy and public health. The timeline for achieving herd immunity to COVID-19 begins now, not after a vaccine is approved by the FDA. At that point, thousands of Utahns will likely be asking their local pharmacy for the COVID vaccine, while others will be mobilizing to argue against the benefits of any vaccine.
If we wait to begin the policy and public information effort, it could cost Utah many more lives and billions more dollars, for no reason other than the fact that we chose to ignore the urgency when we could have acted to make a difference.
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