White Utahns get vaccinated at twice the rate of other communities. Will new access change that?

Inviting all adult Utahns to be immunized will help get vaccine to populations who have been “locked out,” doctor says.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zaibunnisa Kukaswabia, 66, receives her first free Moderna vaccination on Thursday. Over 120 people were scheduled to get their first shots of both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines at the Utah Islamic Center in West Jordan, Mar. 18, 2021.

People in Utah’s ethnic communities have lagged behind the majority-white population in getting the COVID-19 vaccine — but opening up eligibility to all Utah adults next week could help even the playing field, a leading doctor says.

“Opening it up for everybody is good, because some of the populations who were locked out will be able to get it sooner,” said Dr. Jose Rodriguez, associate vice president for health equity, diversity and inclusion at University of Utah Health, after Gov. Spencer Cox’s Thursday announcement about broader access.

All Utahns over the age of 16 can start making appointments to get COVID-19 vaccinations starting Wednesday, March 24, Cox said at his monthly televised news conference. That’s more than a week ahead of his earlier plan to open up the process by April 1.

Utah’s white population, so far, has been getting COVID-19 vaccinations at twice or three times the rate that members of the state’s ethnic communities have, according to Utah Department of Health statistics. Utahns age 65 and older — the second age group offered vaccine, after 70 and older — are just shy of 90% white, according to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The list of Utahns now eligible include people age 50 and older, who are 85.8% white, according to 2019 census data compiled by the institute at the University of Utah. People with certain chronic and severe health conditions, including diabetes, kidney disease or obesity, also qualify. Health care workers, residents of long-term care centers, first responders and teachers were the first to be vaccinated in Utah.

Rodriguez said he would have liked to have seen the state “use race and ethnicity in our prioritization scale,” adding that the data shows “health conditions are not the only things that are predictive of a bad outcome. The other things that are predictive of a bad outcome are race and ethnicity.”

Of the 15,233 Utahns who have been hospitalized because of COVID-19, 34.1% were people of color — though they make up 24.4% of the state’s population. Hospitalization rates for Latinos and Pacific Islanders far exceed their proportions of the population.

Many states have been rushing to open up eligibility to all, ahead of President Joe Biden’s call last week that states make COVID-19 vaccines available to all American adults by May 1. According to CNN, Alaska and Mississippi already have dropped the eligibility limit to 16, and Ohio, Michigan, Montana and Connecticut will join Utah in lowering the age limit soon.

One risk of opening the floodgates, Jen Tolbert of the Kaiser Family Foundation told the news outlet Axios, is “it does become a bit of a free for all, and it becomes much more difficult to target vaccines and ensure those who are most vulnerable are vaccinated first.”

When health workers have run clinics in vulnerable communities, they often see older people accompanied on their appointments by their adult children or grandchildren, said Tom Hudachko, a UDOH spokesman. “It would make more sense to vaccinate their kids and grandkids at the same time,” Hudachko said.

With the age limit lifted, Cox said, UDOH and regional health departments can go into an underserved area with a mobile clinic “and just go to town, vaccinating as many people as possible.”

Jacob Fitisemanu Jr., a West Valley City council member and co-founder of the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition, touted the vaccination clinics in his city that have been designed to welcome the Pacific Islander community. They have been running with the Salt Lake County Health Department’s help on Saturdays since early February, he said, and last Saturday, the clinic put 900 shots in arms.

At that clinic and others being organized statewide, Fitisemanu said, members of the Pacific Islander community are volunteering “to help people go through the registration process, to be there to help the county nurses spell our big, long names with all the vowels,” he said.

“We don’t see any indication that there will be a withdrawal of the targeted Pacific Islander outreach,” Fitisemanu said. “With that in mind, we’re not as concerned about opening the floodgates or getting crowded out of the door.”

In Utah County, a vaccination clinic for the Pacific Islander community is scheduled for March 27 in American Fork, said Oreta Tupola, the health coalition’s director.

Some Pacific Islanders have been hesitant about getting the vaccine, Fitisemanu said, because of “multiple sources of information that sometimes contradict each other.”

That hesitancy has been subsiding slowly, he said, “because now we do have trusted, credible messaging that’s coming from community leaders.” He cited the clergy at churches with Pacific Islander congregations, and educators at Pacific Islander charter schools, as helping to get those messages out.

“Some are still very scared about going to any clinic or hospital because they think they’re going to get the virus if they go there,” Tupola said. “And they’re not clear about the vaccines and any side effects. There’s still some fear around that. So we’re just trying to put out as much information about that [as we can].”

The Utah Islamic Center in Sandy opened its doors to a COVID-19 vaccine clinic Thursday, providing shots for about 200 people, Imam Shauib Bin said.

”It was not just the Muslim community,” Imam Bin said. “We actually had a very diverse crowd. … The word got out, so people signed up from the Sikh community, from the Hindu community.”

The clinic, he said, was a service to the community, and a welcome convenience.

“It’s almost like home delivery,” the imam said. “It’s happening at your local mosque. People know the layout, they know where to park. They feel more comfortable, maybe closer to home.”

As of Thursday, 22.8 out of every 100 white Utahns have received at least one dose of the vaccine. By comparison, Utah’s Asian population is at 11.7 out of 100, the American Indian and Alaskan Native population is at 11.3 out of 100, the Hispanic/Latino population is at 9.1 out of 100, the Black community is at 7.7 out of 100, and the Pacific Islander population is at 7.4 out of 100.

Some of that disparity is explained by the comparatively younger populations of Utah’s ethnic communities and the impact of Utah’s age-based rollout. Of the 714,049 Utahns who had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Thursday, 65.6% of them were 50 years old or older, a group that is nearly 86% white.

Cox said only allowing people age 50 and up, where the age threshold now stands to get the vaccine has been especially limiting in underrepresented communities. Experts at the Utah Department of Health have told Cox that “having to pick and choose which people in that population that they’re able to vaccinate … has made it very difficult,” Cox said.

Getting members of Utah’s ethnic communities vaccinated is good for all Utahns, Cox said.

“This isn’t just equity for the sake of equity, which is important,” Cox said. “In order for us to hit something close to herd immunity, we have to reach these populations in a significant way. It’s not enough to just do 70% of the general population, but have these pockets where we’re at 30% and 40%. We have to do better.”

Find a vaccination from the Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition

The Utah Pacific Islander Health Coalition is offering COVID-19 vaccination clinics around the state.

For frequent Saturday clinics in West Valley City, call 385-274-7121 to pre-register.

For a March 27 clinic in American Fork at the Hillcrest Stake Center, call 801-851-7183 or 801-851-7197 to schedule an appointment. The center is at 165 N. 350 West.

For information on additional clinics, visit facebook.com/UTPIHealthCoalition/.