Full approval for Pfizer vaccine means Utah could see vaccine mandates

Utah law prohibits mandates, but only for vaccines deployed under emergency authorization.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A vial of saline and the Pfizer COVID19 vaccine at the Woods Cross High School pop-up clinic by Nomi Health, April 27, 2021.

The FDA has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for people age 16 and up — which means that, under Utah law, state and local governments can now require vaccinations as a condition of employment or school enrollment.

Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill prohibiting such mandates, and Gov. Spencer Cox signed it into law. But that law only applies to vaccines that are approved for emergency use.

Before Monday, all three COVID-19 vaccines in use in the United States — Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — were deployed under emergency authorization. That changed Monday, when the Food and Drug Administration gave Pfizer its full approval.

The change opens up the possibility that state colleges, universities and public schools can require faculty and staff members — and, potentially, students — to be vaccinated. California, Oregon, Washington and Connecticut had already announced vaccine mandates for teachers and staff. In Utah, Westminster College — a private school — will require students, faculty and staff to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 15.

Teachers unions in Utah have not yet weighed in on vaccine mandates.

Monday’s announcement does not mean that Utah children under the age of 12 can be vaccinated yet. The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine is only for people ages 16 and up. It’s still available under emergency use authorization for children ages 12-15, and as a third dose for “certain immunocompromised individuals.”

So under current Utah law, public schools would only be able to mandate vaccinations for students ages 16 and over.

The Legislature’s ban on vaccination mandates does not apply to private businesses, which can require both employees and customers to be vaccinated. New York, New Orleans and San Francisco now require proof of vaccination to enter many businesses.

Several Utah businesses, including The Bayou, the Sun Trapp, Salt Lake Acting Company, the State Room and the Commonwealth Room, currently require proof of vaccination — or, in some cases, a negative COVID test. The Depot and Usana Amphitheater will join that group on Oct. 4.

“For businesses and universities that have been thinking about putting vaccine requirements in place in order to create safer spaces for people to work and learn, I think that this move from the FDA ... will actually help them to move forward with those kinds of plans,” U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said Sunday on CNN.

The FDA’s decision has not, for now, pushed the state’s largest hospital system, Intermountain Healthcare, toward requiring its employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

An employee mandate is “one of those things on the table that we will continue to evaluate,” Dr. Tamara Sheffield, Intermountain’s medical director for preventive medicine, said in a virtual news conference Monday.

Sheffield said more than 75% of Intermountain’s workforce is fully vaccinated, and the company would prefer voluntary acceptance of the vaccine rather than an order. “We want to make sure our employees are given every opportunity to make these decisions in a considered manner,” she said.

Other factors that would bolster Intermountain’s decision, Sheffield said, would be “making sure the community is supportive of that, and that we have legislative support. … We’re just making sure that we have people aligned, and that we’re not surprised by some objections that might be made.”

Between 80% and 85% of health care workers in the University of Utah Health system are vaccinated against COVID-19, said Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of the pediatric infectious diseases division at University of Utah Health and director of hospital epidemiology at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital.

Pavia said health experts are hoping that the FDA approval will prompt people “who have just been waiting for this, as the final piece of safety review and information to go ahead and get vaccinated.”

Pavia stressed during a virtual briefing to reporters Monday that he is not involved in any decision to require vaccines among University of Utah Health employees. However, he said, health care workers commonly are required to do things, from getting vaccinated against measles to washing their hands regularly, to keep patients safe.

“A general principle, that doctors take incredibly importantly, is that we need to protect our patients and do no harm,” Pavia said. “Our obligation is to do everything we can to ensure patient safety.”

A U. of U. Health spokeswoman said the system’s leaders are “studying and evaluating” whether they will institute a vaccine mandate for employees.

The legislature could pass a new law banning vaccine mandates for Pfizer and any other vaccine that wins full FDA approval, but that would require the governor to call the state lawmakers into a special session, or legislative leaders could declare an emergency to pass a new ban. House and Senate leaders did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Pentagon released a statement that it will “press ahead with plans to require members of the military to get the vaccine” — so military personnel at Hill Air Force Base, the Tooele Army Depot and Dugway Proving Grounds will be getting shots, if they haven’t already.

The hope among health officials is that giving Pfizer full approval will prompt some of the vaccine-hesitant to go get the shots. As of Friday, just 47% of Utah’s total population was fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Another 7% of Utahns have received one dose of the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

The Utah Department of Health released a statement that the full authorization of the Pfizer vaccine “should provide confidence to anyone who may have hesitated to get the vaccine while it was under emergency use. We strongly encourage you to get vaccinated and help end the pandemic.”

UDOH is also urging healthcare providers who haven’t been offering COVID-19 vaccines to begin doing so.

And acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said, “We recognize that for some, the FDA approval of a vaccine may now instill additional confidence to get vaccinated. Today’s milestone puts us one step closer to altering the course of this pandemic in the U.S.”