Utah asks federal officials to confirm state is getting its ‘fair share’ of COVID-19 vaccine

State health department leader also says the Biden administration has reversed a policy to base state allotments in part on how fast they administer doses.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) COVID-19 vaccine awaits delivery to teachers in the Davis County School District at the Davis County Legacy Center in Farmington on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

The Utah Department of Health has reached out to federal health officials to make sure Utah is getting its “fair share” of COVID-19 vaccine, its leader announced Sunday.

Rich Saunders, executive director of the department, released a statement in response to reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune that Utah has been allocated fewer doses per capita than all other states.

“Because Utah is the youngest state in the nation, it follows that we would receive fewer doses than other states,” Saunders said.

While the state has “no reason to believe Utah is receiving fewer doses than it should be,” he said, it has “inquired with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to ensure Utah is receiving its fair share of vaccine. They are unaware of any discrepancies but have agreed to review their numbers for accuracy.”

Saunders also said the Biden administration has reversed a policy created by former President Donald Trump — and set to take effect this week — to base state vaccine allotments in part on how fast they administer them to residents.

Then-Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar announced that policy Jan. 12 at a press briefing. The new system “gives states a strong incentive to ensure that all vaccinations are being promptly reported, which they’re currently not, and it gives states a strong incentive to ensure doses are going to work protecting people, rather than sitting on shelves or in freezers,” Azar said.

The Biden administration did not respond last week to The Tribune’s inquiries about the policy, and it does not appear that HHS or the CDC have issued news releases announcing a reversal.

“Biden administration representatives have assured states this proposal is no longer under consideration.” Saunders said on Sunday. “States will continue to receive their allocation based on their share of the U.S. adult population, and not based on pace of administration.”

To evaluate Utah’s allocation, The Tribune used the allotted doses per state for Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, divided by each state’s total and adult populations. The Tribune’s analysis showed Utah’s allocation has been the least, both per total population and per adult population only.

Saunders said that conclusion “runs contrary to information we’ve received from the CDC,” but he did not provide an alternate ranking for Utah.

The state reported on Thursday that more than 31,000 vaccine doses had been in the state for more than a week, yet had not been used. Gov. Spencer Cox has declared that any doses unused more than a week after delivery will be collected and redistributed.

As of Sunday, that number was 26,399, Saunders said.

He said almost all of those, or 23,235, are under the control of CVS and Walgreens, national chains with federal contracts to distribute vaccine in long-term care centers. (The pharmacies have asserted in statements to The Tribune that they do not possess thousands of unused and unneeded doses.)

Saunders said the remaining 3,164 unused, week-old doses are under state control. (That number stood at about 5,400 on Thursday.)

Of those, he said, 891 are in the possession of an unnamed local pharmacy contracted to use them in long-term care facilities. “We are actively working to get these doses (and their boost counterparts) transferred to this pharmacy’s local health department on Monday, Jan. 25,” he said.

The remaining 2,273 doses are in hospitals or community health clinics; Saunders did not identify those providers. “These doses are scheduled to be transferred to local health departments by Monday, Jan. 25,” he said.

In a statement Sunday, Cox focused on first doses received at least seven days ago.

“Thanks to our partners — especially local health departments — Utah has administered 100% of the first doses we received seven days ago and we anticipate the same will be true for this week,” he said. “Our first priority remains ensuring we administer every dose we receive as quickly as we can.”

He added: “The state will continue to be open and transparent about our progress.”

Saunders did not identify the local health departments that are getting the vaccine that had gone unused for more than a week. The state plans to provide more information about who in the state gets vaccine “shortly,” Saunders said, but it will describe recipients by type, not by name.

“We currently do not report on our public dashboard how many doses each provider receives. We displayed this information online briefly, removed it while we went through a data quality assurance process, and are working to bring back this information by provider type shortly,” he said.

He added: “The state is currently reporting the total number of residents in each health district who have received their first and second doses, not how many each local health department has administered.”

Unless the state discloses how many doses each local health department has received and how many of each shipment it has administered, it is impossible for Utahns to know whether a county or regional health department is taking longer than others to use its supply, The Tribune noted.

State officials have said they are tracking the vaccine’s arrival closely in order to enforce Cox’s order for the state to collect doses unused more than a week after delivery. The state also is requiring sites to report daily how many doses they have administered.

Also on Sunday, Saunders offered additional information about the state’s work to take control of some doses allotted to the two pharmacy chains under federal vaccination contracts for long-term care centers.

A total of 51,675 doses have been delivered to Walgreens and CVS from Utah’s supply as of Sunday, he said, and they have reported giving 23,665 doses to patients. The administered vaccine included 22,590 first doses and 1,075 second doses, he said.

He did not specify how many of the unused doses are designated as booster second shots that cannot be immediately distributed.

And, he acknowledged, “Some of the [unused] doses are likely on-hand in preparation for upcoming clinics this week.”

However, he added, “it appears the federal government has allocated too much vaccine to these providers. We will ensure Walgreens and CVS receive the doses they need to fulfill their obligation in long-term care facilities. But any doses above and beyond need to be transferred or diverted to other providers throughout the state that have the capability to get them into arms as quickly as possible.”

While the pharmacies assert that state officials directly approve the number of doses they receive each week; state officials said in The Tribune’s earlier reporting and again on Sunday that federal authorities decide how many to remove from Utah’s allocation for them.

For this week, Saunders said, “the state has worked with the CDC to reduce the amount of doses going to the federal pharmacy partners by 8,775 doses. We are continuing to work directly with CVS and Walgreens to have 13,650 additional, un-ordered doses released to the state for administration throughout Utah. This effectively reduces their future allocations.”