Fact check: Are Utah politicians — and others — jumping the COVID-19 vaccination line?

First shipments are going directly to hospitals, which must track who they vaccinate.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julie Nelson administers the covid-19 vaccine to William Brunt, at LDS Hospital, on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020.

Utah’s front-line health care workers are getting the state’s first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and there are tracking safeguards to make sure no one cuts in line, say state and hospital officials.

Phase 1 of Utah’s distribution plan gives the vaccine to health care workers who are in contact with COVID-19 patients, then staff and residents at long-term care facilities, followed by health care professionals who work outside hospitals.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, noted Thursday that the first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine are being delivered directly to hospitals.

And once the boxes are opened, there are tracking requirements put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under the CDC rules, hospitals must document each individual who receives one of the doses, as providers follow the distribution plan the state has already submitted.

“If we deviate from that, they will see it, and we won’t get more vaccine,” said Lance Madigan, a spokesman for Intermountain Healthcare.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said he and his colleagues know lawmakers are under scrutiny, and some Utahns fear they will get special treatment. He said lawmakers aren’t seeking early vaccinations.

“I don’t believe anyone believes that would be appropriate,” the Kaysville Republican said.

At Intermountain hospitals, staffers are tracking those who receive vaccine “by employee identification number, which ties to their job description and ensures they are the right priority group,” Madigan said.

Steward Health Care has a similar tracking system at the five hospitals it operates in Utah, said Joni DeJong, a company spokeswoman.

“There’s no way of jumping ahead,” she said.

MountainStar Healthcare, which operates eight hospitals in Utah, has “a robust electronic system that tiers colleagues and providers,” based on guidelines by the National Academy of Medicine “that will help prevent them from receiving [the vaccine] out of turn,” said Chris Taylor, a company spokesman.

Kathy Wilets, a University of Utah Health spokeswoman, didn’t describe its accountability system, but said University Hospital is “following state and CDC guidance and are only vaccinating healthcare workers at this time. We are prioritizing those who are caring for COVID-19 patients.”

Setting priorities

Former state Sen. Jim Dabakis has claimed on social media that a public official told him state VIPs and their families are “likely getting in on the first shots.” He didn’t identify the official.

In a sharp retort, Gov.-elect Spencer Cox asked, “Jim, I say this with all the love in the world ... What the hell is wrong with you?”

Cox continued: “Not only is this not true, it’s destructive and demoralizing. Neither community leaders nor those in public office will be first in line to receive it,” urging Dabakis to delete the post.

In a subsequent post, Dabakis asserted, “There was talk that some in the state political machine might be declared essential personnel,” without identifying a source for the claim. He did not return a call for comment.

Essential workers — a category that includes people who can’t work from home — aren’t scheduled to get the vaccine until the state begins Phase 2 of its plan, sometime in March.

The question of which groups go first in Phase 2 is still being resolved, said Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko. A UDOH panel of health experts will make recommendations to the governor’s office, which has the final word, he said.

But putting elected leaders on the essential workers list has never been discussed by that prioritization group, he said.

Teachers and police next

The next groups to receive the vaccine — after the specified health care workers and long-term care residents — will be teachers and school staff and those who provide protective services, such as police, Hudachko said.

All those Phase 1 groups represent 267,000 Utahns, he said — though it’s not guaranteed that every one of them will take the vaccine.

Then Phase 2 vaccinations will begin, covering a variety of people at higher risk for both contracting the coronavirus and getting more sick from it, including people over age 65.

So, will some legislators get the vaccine earlier than other Utahns? Sure, Wilson said, but “only because they are of a certain age or they have health conditions” that qualify them.

“They will be in the same class as others who receive the vaccine,” he said.

That was Cox’s explanation to Dabakis, as well. “We will get it based on the approved categories like everyone else,” he wrote.

Others included in Phase 2 include food, restaurant and grocery workers; tribal communities; minority communities; people who live in homeless shelters or are experiencing homelessness, and incarcerated people.

Safety plans

To receive vaccine doses, hospitals had to be screened and approved both for their ability to store the Pfizer vaccine in supercold freezers and to meet the distribution guidelines, Madigan said.

They must document how they have used their doses before they can order more, he said, and must follow up with the first group vaccinated to ensure they receive the required second dose in 21 days.

The tracking also is part of the national effort’s safety protocols, Madigan said. “If it is discovered later there is an issue with a batch, say, we know who we gave that vaccine to and can follow up with them,” he said.

Wilson, the House speaker, said legislators have been thinking about contingency plans in case a COVID-19 outbreak disrupts the general session that begins in January.

On Wednesday, lawmakers decided to add nearly $1 billion to the state’s base budget, including $400 million of new spending for public education, so priorities will be funded in case the pandemic forces a shutdown before they can pass the full budget for next year.

“There is tremendous concern about how we get through the legislative session. But we have not considered giving everyone the vaccine so we can do our work,” Wilson said. “Now, at least the budget is done in case we can’t finish the session.”