Utah’s vaccine rollout has been ‘slow,’ says the state official leading it

More than 3,000 shots a day expected this week, as more groups become eligible for the first phase of the state’s plan.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) North Davis firefighter/EMT Ashley Shelton, right, shares a laugh with her coworker Chris Belliston as the two receive the vaccine while on duty Wednesday. Davis County Health Department operated a drive-thru vaccination for non-hospital health care workers and first responders at the Legacy Center in Farmington, Dec. 30, 2020.

In the first two weeks that Utahns have been receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, not everything has gone according to plan, said the state official in charge of distribution.

“The initial rollout of the vaccine has been slow, OK?” Rich Lakin, immunization program manager for the Utah Department of Health, said at a news briefing Wednesday. “Really, slower than what we had anticipated, and slower than what we wanted. But we are picking up some steam.”

From Dec. 15, when the first doses were administered at University of Utah Hospital and LDS Hospital, through the Christmas weekend, a total of 17,543 doses of the vaccine were administered in Utah — almost all to front-line health care workers.

Part of that slow start, Lakin said, is the sheer size of the operation.

“We have not given our health systems this large a quantity of vaccines before,” Lakin said.

Also impeding progress, he said, was that Utah received fewer doses of the vaccine than it had been promised by the federal government. On Dec. 18, UDOH reported that it was getting 16,575 doses in its first allotment, not the 23,400 for which the department was planning. Other states experienced similar shortfalls.

President Donald Trump, posting on Twitter Wednesday, put the onus back on the states.

“The Federal Government has distributed the vaccines to the states,” Trump tweeted. “Now it is up to the states to administer. Get moving!”

The pace of getting vaccines into Utah arms has been accelerating this week, Lakin said. On Monday and Tuesday, UDOH reported that 6,427 doses of the vaccine were distributed — an average of 3,214 per day. (There’s a lag time of a day, or even two, between when someone gets vaccinated and that number shows up on UDOH’s tally.)

Among the success stories:

• The Davis County Health Department set up a drive-thru clinic in Farmington for health care workers who work outside hospitals, allowing up to 28 cars inside vaccination bays at a time. Nearly 1,000 doses were administered in Davis County on Tuesday, Lakin said, and the county aims to dole out 5,000 doses by this weekend.

• The Utah County Health Department vaccinated nearly 600 health care workers on Tuesday.

• The Bear River Health Department, covering Utah’s three northernmost counties, gave out 700 doses to health care workers. By next week, the district anticipates giving out 2,300 doses.

• University of Utah Hospital has administered nearly 90% of the doses it received, Lakin said.

• Intermountain Healthcare administered 1,900 doses throughout its system on Monday, and another 3,200 on Tuesday. By week’s end, Lakin said, Intermountain expects to give out 100% of the doses it has received.

One reason the pace of vaccine distribution quickened this week is that residents and staff at long-term care facilities started getting their shots. Lakin said acceptance of the vaccine is high, around 90%, among the elderly residents of such facilities, and around 68% among staff.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Dr. Tom Miller, chief medical officer at University of Utah Hospitals and Clinics, said that of the 13,000 health care workers in the University of Utah who are considered “front-line,” more than 7,500 have received the vaccine since Dec. 15.

Of the roughly 5,500 who haven’t received it yet, most have been delayed by scheduling issues, and will get their doses in the next couple of weeks, he said.

Many of those who are hanging back are likely to get the vaccine eventually, Miller said. “There’s an accelerator effect,” Miller said. “You’ve got a group of people who are watching, and are taking notice of all those folks who are getting the vaccine and doing just fine.”

Eventually, Miller said, he expected between 75% and 80% of University Hospital staff will get the vaccine.

Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare, said Wednesday that among health care workers he knows, “the overwhelming majority have been enthusiastic for this vaccine, and have gone and gotten their vaccine.”

Stenehjem volunteered to help administer vaccines Tuesday, and “it’s a celebratory type of environment,” he said. “People are so excited to have another layer of protection that they show up in droves.”

Stenehjem’s advice to people who are still undecided about getting the vaccine: “Look at the science, look at the data, go read those articles yourself. Look at trusted sources, like the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].”

First responders had been expected to receive vaccinations in the later waves of Phase 1, alongside teachers, beginning in approximately mid-January. But some — EMTs, paramedics or licensed emergency medical services providers — were classified as health care workers who work outside hospitals, and joined that group as eligible to get the vaccine early through regional health departments, UDOH spokesman Tom Hudachko said Wednesday in an email. Other first responders will get their shots in January.

Walter Shearon, a firefighter and an advanced EMT with the South Salt Lake Fire Department, said he went Tuesday with a few of his coworkers from his station to be vaccinated through the Salt Lake County Health Department.

“It was very exciting,” said Shearon. “We feel very fortunate that we have the opportunity to get it.”

Firefighters are still taking precautions, since the vaccine requires two doses before it’s fully effective. But once that’s done, Shearon said, the vaccination will alleviate some of the concerns of working during a pandemic.

“One of our big worries is, frankly, taking [the virus] home to our families,” said Jeff Fox, fire marshal with West Valley City Department.

Employees at Fox’s department started getting the vaccine Tuesday and Wednesday at West Valley City’s Family Fitness Center, and more will be immunized next week, he said.

Lehi Fire Department personnel also were vaccinated this week through the Utah County Health Department, according to Battalion Chief Robert Stanley. “We’re excited to be able to have another tool to fight the virus,” Stanley said.