Thousands of Utah’s coronavirus vaccine doses are waiting to be claimed

Demand for the vaccine is dropping sharply in Utah, prompting health officials to look for new strategies to get it to people.

Demand for coronavirus vaccines has dropped sharply in recent weeks, with thousands of appointments in Utah left unfilled.

The number of new vaccinations statewide has declined by more than a third since it peaked in early April, when more than 30,000 Utahns were being vaccinated each day.

Now fewer than 20,000 Utahns are being vaccinated each day, according to the Utah Department of Health.

The decline in new vaccinations comes as Utah still has not come close to reaching the 75% to 90% coverage that epidemiologists say is needed for herd immunity. As of Friday, just 40.5% of Utahns had received at least one dose and 29.2% had been fully vaccinated.

Last week in Utah County, nobody signed up for more than 4,000 vaccine appointments the county health department offered — about a quarter of all available slots, said department spokesperson Aislynn Tolman-Hill. And that figure doesn’t include unclaimed doses offered by private pharmacies.

Only 33% of the population in Utah County had received at least one dose as of Friday.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Even in Salt Lake County, which has shown more vaccine enthusiasm — 44% of residents have received at least one dose — health officials reported about 1,200 of this week’s appointments still were open as of Wednesday morning. As in Utah County, that figure doesn’t include open slots at pharmacies.

“The past week, we have really noticed a softening in the demand for vaccine,” Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department, told county officials in a meeting this week.“We had the opportunity to open up a couple thousand additional appointments and many of those appointments … are still not filled.”

Young Utahns aren’t signing up — and they’re still getting sick

The most significant gaps, Edwards said, are among residents ages 20 to 30.

“That group, as you know over the past year, has had the most cases,” Edwards said. “We’re having a hard time getting that group vaccinated.”

As the state opened vaccinations to younger and younger Utahns, vaccine coverage shot up in each newly eligible age group — until those under 50 became eligible.

On Wednesday, five weeks after all Utahns ages 16 and up became eligible for the vaccine, just 36.2% of Utahns ages 16 to 29 had gotten their first shot. If Utahns in that age group continue to get vaccinated at the same rate they have for the past three weeks, it will take about another 10 weeks for 75% of them to get their first shots — or 15 weeks after they all became eligible.

By contrast, it took each age group over 60 about six weeks after they were eligible for 75% to get their first shots — and that was when supplies were so low that patients were signing up for appointments weeks in advance.

With younger Utahns lagging in vaccinations, young adults this week became the age group with the state’s highest number of coronavirus hospitalizations — for the first time since the pandemic began.

Utahns ages 25 to 44 were averaging 5.4 new hospitalizations per day for the coronavirus as of Wednesday. That surpassed the averages of the 45-to-64 age group and the 65-to-84 age group, which, until recently, had been the ages most commonly seen in Utah’s hospitals.

Hospitalizations among younger Utahns had been declining slowly, but somewhat steadily, from mid-January until early April, when the number plateaued around just over five new young adults admitted per day. That was about two weeks after the state’s number of new cases plateaued in mid-March, following a sharp decline since early January.

“We’re starting to see younger patients even in the ICU,” said Dr. Dixie Harris, a pulmonary specialist for Intermountain Healthcare. “Generally, the younger patients don’t have as many medical problems, so they tend to do better. Maybe they don’t have to go all the way to going on the ventilator. But still, the ones who get hit with the very severe COVID pneumonia — they still are in the ICU for days and days.”

Meanwhile, cases are rising among teens, Edwards said.

“We do have concern with our school-aged population,” he said. “We’ve had three consecutive weeks of increase in cases, week over week. We have had outbreaks that have been school related, primarily related to extracurricular activities.”

Meeting patients where they are

As the number of new vaccinations taper off, health officials are looking at new ways to get the shots to willing patients, shifting away from mass vaccination sites and moving toward mobile clinics that can visit workplaces and other groups.

Employers, civic groups, religious institutions and any other organizations now may sign up to have vaccines brought to their sites, and the state will pay those costs, Gov. Spencer Cox announced on Thursday.

“Right now, we have plenty of doses available to support this initiative,” Cox said in a news conference. The state set aside 25,000 doses — about a third of the state’s allocation for first doses — to distribute at requested clinics next week, Cox said.

Any organization that wishes to host a vaccine clinic may sign up at coronavirus.utah.gov.

“Right now, there’s the possibility someone will have to take time off work [to get vaccinated],” Tolman-Hill said. “We’re looking at what can we do to, rather than people having to come to the vaccine, to take the vaccine to them.”

Some school districts already have set up vaccinations for teens to get while they are at school. But Edwards said those clinics have encountered problems.

“The uptake was not as robust as we were hoping,” he said. A lot of students didn’t have signed consent forms from their parents, even though they said their parents verbally approved getting shots at school, Edwards said.

There’s “certainly an effort moving forward to try and get those high school students vaccinated by the end of the school year,” Edwards said.

Health officials also are increasingly setting up pop-up vaccination tents designed to get shots to underserved populations, as mass vaccination sites max out coverage for patients who were eager and able to get their shots as soon as possible, said Nicholas Rupp, spokesperson for the Salt Lake County Health Department.

In Utah County, health officials are working with groups that help supply food and health services to low-income residents, in hopes they won’t be left out, Tolman-Hill said.

“We are also working with trusted voices and leadership in various multicultural and underserved communities to encourage vaccination,” Rupp said.

Weekly surveys by state health officials show that concern about side effects is by far the most common explanation respondents gave for being hesitant about the vaccines.

Because of that, Tolman-Hill said, Utah County is hoping to make vaccines available through doctors’ offices.

“There’s a good possibility those people would be comfortable getting their vaccines directly from their own health care providers,” Tolman-Hill said, “in a provider setting where they’ve been many times and can talk through any concerns with their provider.”