Utah’s COVID-19 vaccine plan: Front-line health workers as soon as December, all Utahns by July

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Utah’s front-line health care workers may get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as December — but the average Utahn may have to wait until summer, according to state health officials.

The Utah Department of Health on Wednesday laid out the general plan for distributing the vaccines being developed to stop the coronavirus, which has been responsible for a quarter-million deaths nationwide and more than 700 fatalities across Utah so far.

“It’s very difficult to plan when we don’t know how much vaccine we’re going to have,” Rich Lakin, director of UDOH’s immunization program, said in a media briefing.

The state’s plan — which is fluid and subject to change, Lakin said — calls for vaccines to be distributed in three phases, based on availability of the vaccine and the most pressing need. The first phase, given to front-line health care workers, could be distributed as soon as mid-December. The third phase, which will cover all Utahns, may not start until July, Lakin said.

What’s to keep someone from cutting in line? Lakin said the state is relying on the honor system — an idea that has proved not entirely successful in getting Utahns to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

“I’m optimistic that most people are honest,” Lakin said. “People will say, ‘I can wait for the vaccine because there are people above me.’”

Phase 1 calls for the vaccine to be given first to health care staffers — particularly those working in emergency rooms, urgent care, intensive care units and COVID wards, as well as those with preexisting conditions — at five Utah hospitals. They will first receive the version produced by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., which may be available as early as mid-December, pending approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Those five hospitals — LDS Hospital and University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah Valley Regional Hospital in Provo, and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George — were chosen, Lakin said, because they have the highest COVID-19 response, and because they have the cold storage facilities needed to keep the Pfizer version from losing its effectiveness.

Those five hospitals, Lakin said, “are already on board and ready to receive the vaccine.” They may even receive the Pfizer version before FDA approval is given, so they can start giving their workers the shots as soon as it’s approved.

The next waves of Phase 1, possibly starting in January, would go to other hospitals in the state, as well as health care workers in clinics, pharmacies, long-term care facilities and other locations. First responders and emergency medical service workers also would receive vaccines in this part of Phase 1, followed by essential workers, defined by a state task force representing businesses, the health care industry, public health experts and policymakers.

The Moderna vaccine should be up for FDA approval by January, Lakin said. When it’s available, that vaccine will likely go to more rural parts of the state — because it can be stored in standard refrigeration units, rather than supercold facilities used for the Pfizer version.

Phase 2 of the rollout would likely run from March to June or July, Lakin said, when more of the vaccines will be available. This group would include workers with a moderate risk of spreading the coronavirus, because they can’t work from home and have some contact with other people. These would be teachers, child care workers and airline staff, among others.

Phase 2 also covers groups who have disproportionately suffered from the pandemic or are considered at higher risk of getting more sick, or dying, if they catch COVID-19. They include certain racial and ethnic groups, members of Utah’s tribal entities, people age 65 or older, inmates and staff in correctional facilities, people working in food preparation, or those with underlying medical conditions.

Everybody in Utah would be covered in Phase 3, which could begin in June or July — when it’s expected that supplies of the vaccines will be plentiful, Lakin said.

Complicating the process is the fact that both the Pfizer and Moderna versions require a patient to get two shots — three weeks apart for Pfizer, four weeks apart for Moderna. Part of the state’s vaccine plan is to work with health care providers to remind patients when to get the second shot, using reminder cards and text messages.

UDOH also will spearhead an advertising campaign to encourage people to get the vaccine when it’s their turn, according to the state’s plan.

Lakin said the first vaccines will be for adults. Eventually, he said, the FDA is expected to approve the appropriate dosage for children.

Just because people have been vaccinated “doesn’t mean all of a sudden the disease burden has been eliminated,” Lakin said, adding that measures such as mask-wearing and maintaining social distance will need to continue well into 2021. “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”