With Utah receiving too few doses of COVID-19 vaccine to meet demand, residents vulnerable to serious illness related to the coronavirus are facing long waits for their spot in line.
“Our primary challenge is that we have few doses,” state health officials wrote in a blog post last week.
Here’s what we know about various groups the state has previously identified as high priority for vaccination.
Adults ages 65 to 69
Although federal officials this month recommended states open vaccinations to all residents ages 65 and older, Utah had already begun to make plans to vaccinate seniors no younger than 70. That smaller group already has signed up for all of the state’s projected doses so far.
Utah Senate president Stuart Adams has said he will push to have vaccine eligibility lowered to age 65, but state officials have said there will not be vaccine available for them until March at the earliest.
Utahns with ‘high-risk’ health conditions
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have urged states to vaccinate people with certain high-risk chronic conditions, alongside patients age 65 and up.
But it’s not clear that Utah will include affected patients in all age groups at the same time. Instead, state officials may connect medical conditions to its age schedule, said Rich Lakin, immunization director for the Utah Department of Health.
Eligibility for the first phase, now underway, is based on where people work and live — health care workers, nursing home residents and staff, emergency responders and teachers. The second phase, Lakin said, “will be age-based, with the addition of congregate living areas that should be vaccinated, as well as those 11 health conditions incorporated into those ages.”
For example, an at-risk person who’s age 35 to 44 may be able to join the 55 to 64 age group, Lakin said, speaking this month in a webinar hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
Although the most common of the 11 conditions disproportionately affect older age groups, some — such as pregnancy — do not.
And at the rate vaccines are arriving in Utah, it could be months before anyone as young as 55 is eligible. Salt Lake County, for example, committed all of its expected doses through February to 25,000 eligible seniors — fewer than half of its 70,000 residents who are age 70 and up.
Even with skipping an age group or two, by the time a 25-year-old pregnant woman is eligible, she may no longer be pregnant.
However, said UDOH spokesman Tom Hudachko, “I haven’t heard talk of pregnancy being added [to eligibility] up to this point.”
The state is still considering future priority eligibility for 11 conditions that the CDC identifies as risk factors for severe illness from COVID-19: cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), Down Syndrome, heart conditions, weakened immune system from an organ transplant, obesity, severe obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease and type 2 diabetes.
Utahns with other medical conditions
The CDC’s list excludes a number of illnesses that have raised alarm as possible risk factors for severe illness and complications from the coronavirus.
Type 1 diabetes, for example, appears on a secondary list, of conditions that “might” carry heightened risks for those who catch the virus.
There has been no discussion of pushing those patients up in line — and like Type 1 diabetes, several of those conditions affect younger patients, ones who will be waiting a long time for their age group to become eligible.
When Spencer Knecht contracted COVID-19 in September, the infection ravaged his 19-year-old, diabetic body, said his mother, Jennifer Draney. With Knecht quarantined in his South Ogden apartment, Draney watched on a digital glucose monitor from her nearby home as his blood sugar skyrocketed and his temperature soared above 103 degrees.
Knecht still has respiratory and digestive problems, as well as joint pain he developed during the infection, Draney said. More worrisome, she said, is that his blood sugar has remained far less stable than it was before September. He was hospitalized In December because his blood sugar was dangerously high.
“My son was lucky to make it through COVID,” said Draney, who also has diabetes. “Type 1 diabetics should be prioritized at the same level as other high-risk patients ... but [our] vaccine schedule is nowhere in sight. I can’t believe we are still begging to be ‘included.’”
Type 1 diabetics aren’t the only ones pleading for recognition as being at high risk.
“Many patient communities like ours are feeling confused and frustrated as they attempt to navigate vaccine eligibility and processes,” wrote Suzie Conway, spokeswoman for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
CF, like Type 1 diabetes and asthma, is on the CDC’s secondary list of conditions that might put a patient at heightened risk. And all three affect populations that skew young and are likely to face long waits for their age groups to become eligible.
Jails, prisons, and other congregate living areas
While some congregate living areas, such as those serving Utahns with disabilities, have begun to administer the vaccine, there is no timeline yet for vaccinating Utah’s inmates, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the state’s coronavirus response team. As of Thursday, there have been 3,251 cases and 13 deaths from COVID-19 in Utah’s prisons and jails.
There appear to be no vaccine clinics scheduled in Utah’s hard-hit minority communities, although early versions of the state’s vaccination plan gave priority to them. The state has begun to promote vaccinations for minority communities, even though the shots aren’t actually available to anyone younger than 70. An advertisement posted last week, titled “Diverse Communities Get COVID-19 Vaccinations,” shows a diverse group — apparently all health department employees, all clearly under age 70 — receiving vaccines.
Past the first phase of the vaccine rollout, the state has eliminated workplace as a factor for most Utahns. Despite lobbying from the state’s restaurant industry, food and hospitality workers won’t receive priority, with state officials opting to tier recipients by age instead.