Navajo Nation leads COVID-19 vaccination in southern Utah, but limited doses slow rollout

Demand for COVID-19 vaccines is outpacing supply across the state.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Shelly Begay, a Diné medical assistant at Utah Navajo Health System’s Monument Valley Clinic, carries a patient’s coronavirus test kit out of the mobile triage unit for transport and testing on Aug., 24, 2020.

Bluff • Southern Utah health departments are having no problem finding eligible residents who want to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but the limited supply of doses is slowing their rollout.

The Utah Department of Health, which began allocating vials of vaccine to hospitals in late December and now is prioritizing local health departments, does not yet have geographic data for the more than 142,751 doses that had been administered in Utah as of Friday.

But based on calls to public health departments across southern Utah, it appears San Juan County — an epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah since April — is leading the pack for per-capita vaccinations in the region.

Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS), which serves rural southern San Juan County and the Navajo Nation, already has vaccinated 1,200 people with the Pfizer formula in a county with a population of 15,500 residents. Additional vaccine has been administered in the county by the San Juan Health District and to residents of long-term care facilities.

After vaccinating its eligible employees in late December, UNHS used its entire inventory in just four days of free drive-thru vaccination events last week, at its clinics along the Utah Navajo Strip and in Blanding.

“We’ve been doing mass vaccinations in all of our sites where really you just show up,” said Mike Jensen, the CEO of UNHS. “The first round went really, really smooth.”

Most UNHS patients who have received the vaccine are above the age of 70, but some patients over 65 with medical conditions that put them at risk of complications from the virus have also been able to take the first of two doses.

The Southeast Utah Health Department, which serves Grand, Carbon and Emery counties, has vaccinated 1,120 of the district’s 40,200 residents. And hospitals and long-term care facilities have vaccinated an estimated 600 additional people.

Most of the first responders, school workers and health care workers who want the vaccine in southeast Utah have been able to get it, according to department health director Brady Bradford, and appointments are now being scheduled for those 70 and older.

Bradford said the rollout has been going “excellent” so far in terms of efficiency, but as is the case across Utah, demand is outpacing supply.

“We don’t have enough vaccines to meet the demand,” Bradford said. “But with what we’ve got so far, we’ve managed it really well.”

The Southwest Utah Health Department, which represents five counties with a combined population of over 250,000, has vaccinated 4,200 first responders, health care providers and school workers with the Moderna formula so far. It plans to begin vaccinating residents aged 70 and older next week.

“I think it’s been a little frustrating at times for our residents because our supplies have been limited, but we feel like it’s gone out pretty quickly,” said David Heaton, a spokesperson for the department. Over the last two weeks, Heaton said, every dose of the vaccine the department has been received has been given to a resident.

Starting Tuesday, the department will begin scheduling appointments for residents age 70 and older through its website and via a hotline for those without internet access. Appointment slots are only opened as doses become available. Heaton thanked residents of southwest Utah for their patience.

“We’ve practiced with flu shot distribution before, and we could do many times the [current] number if we were able to get more supplies,” he said. “It definitely is a supply issue.”

Southwest Utah’s Washington, Kane, Garfield, Iron and Beaver counties have 35,000 residents over the age of 70, including a high number of retirees in the St. George area, and the department expects it could take six weeks to complete vaccinations for that elderly population.

Meanwhile, cases in the region have been surging. St. George Regional Hospital has been over capacity for intensive care unit beds throughout most of December and January, according to Dr. Patrick Carroll of Intermountain Healthcare.

Last week, the hospital exceeded its ICU capacity by 170% and the facility experienced its highest daily totals for COVID-19 deaths, with 10 patients dying from the disease in 48 hours. Nurses from within the Intermountain system have traveled to St. George from northern Utah over the last week to assist with the surge.

But even with the recent spike in cases in southwest Utah, San Juan County has suffered from the highest mortality rate in the state. In the rural county, 144 residents have been hospitalized and 35 have died of complications related to COVID-19, which likely accounts for the higher number of doses per capita that are available in San Juan.

UNHS employees, often working in remote areas with high poverty rates, have innovated to respond to the pandemic, and staff have initiated ambitious food relief programs. Jensen said the state has been particularly helpful as well.

“The Utah Department of Health has been so good during this whole pandemic about really trying to make sure our patients are taken care of in this rural area, where a lot of people have had worse outcomes than maybe they have up north,” Jensen said. The state has helped supply personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and even firewood for area residents., he noted. “They’re really trying to do what they can.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.