Utah will receive its first vaccine doses soon, as the rate of new coronavirus cases seems to stabilize

Teachers will go to ‘the front of the line,’ after health care workers, Gov. Gary Herbert said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christy Danielson tests patients for Covid-19 at the Intermountain Healthcare Cottonwood InstaCare on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020.

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing free access to critical stories about the coronavirus. Sign up for our Top Stories newsletter, sent to your inbox every weekday morning. To support journalism like this, please donate or become a subscriber.

Teachers will be the first Utahns to receive COVID-19 vaccines after health care workers, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday — but the first vaccine shipments will be smaller than previously thought.

“Educators ... are going to be at the front of the line,” Herbert said at the state’s weekly COVID-19 news briefing.

Utah will receive about 154,000 doses in December, with another 154,000 doses coming in January — which is far less than the 400,000 doses the state’s health department previously estimated would arrive by year’s end.

Herbert said it’s not clear why federal officials reduced Utah’s allocation.

“We don’t know all that’s happened back in Washington,” he said. He noted that Gen. Gustave Perna, who is in charge of the federal government’s vaccine distribution, has told him Utah’s share of the supply is unchanged, even though the number of available doses has gone down.

“We are going to get the vaccines that we are proportionately allowed in the state,” Herbert said.

Federal officials, Herbert said, have “assured us there will be a second dose in January, a month later.” He speculated that “to hedge the bet, to make sure everybody’s going to get a second shot, they’re going to hold some back.”

The first batch of vaccines, 23,400 doses, will ship within 24 hours of federal authorization and is expected to arrive in Utah by early next week, said Rich Lakin, immunization program manager at the Utah Department of Health. The doses will be sent to five large Utah hospitals, and distributed to staff there.

Another 131,200 doses should arrive later in December to be administered to the first group outside of hospitals: long-term care facility staff and residents, health care providers working outside of hospitals — and, under new recommendations from the state panel overseeing vaccine distribution, school employees.

“We want to make sure that our students are going to school to learn,” Herbert said. “This will help minimize families’ disruption at home.”

Heidi Matthews, president of the Utah Education Association, praised Herbert and the state “for prioritizing public school educators” in the vaccine distribution plan.

”Teachers and school staff risk their health each day by being in school face-to-face with students,” Matthews said in a statement. “It is critical those dedicated public school employees who elect to receive the vaccine, many of whom are at-risk themselves, have convenient access as soon as feasibly possible.”

Herbert estimated that teachers would be able to receive their shots “by the end of December or the first part of January.”

“How quickly we are able to get to those groups depends entirely on how quickly the federal government is able to ship us vaccine,” Lakin said.

The rapid development of vaccines, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said, “really is the miracle we’ve all been praying for and hoping for.”

But with more than 20 deaths reported for the third day in a row, Thursday marked the virus’s deadliest week in Utah since the pandemic began.

Utah’s death toll surpassed 1,000 Thursday and stood at 1,016, with 21 fatalities reported since Wednesday.

The rate of new cases, however, held steady, with 3,401 new cases reported. For the past week, the state has averaged 2,816 new positive test results a day.

[Read more: The sobering stats as Utah surpasses 1,000 COVID-19 deaths]

“It is not nearly the surge we were expecting post-Thanksgiving,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said in the news conference.

Hospitalizations were down slightly, with 554 Utah patients concurrently admitted.

However, intensive care units were more packed than ever: about 94% full in the state’s 15 large “referral” hospitals, which care for most of Utah’s seriously-ill coronavirus patients. Those ICUs have been about 93% full for the past week, a record-high average — and that figure doesn’t account for staffing fluctuations as doctors and nurses are themselves forced to quarantine or care for sick family members, hospital administrators have said.

It also doesn’t account for the high demand for resources specifically needed by COVID-19 patients, who now make up about 41% of all ICU patients statewide — also a record high.

For the past week, 26.2% of all tests have come back positive — slightly below the peak this week of more than 27%, but still far above the 3% rate that state officials have said would indicate the virus is under control.

Those who do test positive may receive a text message instead of a phone call, starting Friday, when health officials begin digital contact tracing.

“The hope is that it’s speeding up the initial case investigation process,” Dunn said.

A patient who receives a positive test result may get a text message that includes a link to a secure online form, Dunn said. There they can either type in information about their case, including names and contact information for anyone they might have exposed — or they will receive a phone number to discuss their case with an investigator, she said.

Contact tracers will not request personal details via text, Dunn said.

There were 15,613 new test results reported Thursday, above the weeklong average of about 14,000 new tests per day.

Per-capita rates of new cases again were far higher in Sanpete and Wasatch counties than in the rest of the state. In Sanpete County, about 1 in 54 residents had tested positive for the virus in the past two weeks — meaning their cases are considered “active.” That figure rises to 1 in 46 within the towns of the Sanpete Valley.

In Wasatch County, more than 1 in 60 residents were diagnosed with active cases, with rates of more than 1 in 75 in Washington and Utah counties.

But many more counties include communities with rates at least that high. According to the state’s “small area” data, about 873,000 Utahns live in neighborhoods and cities where more than 1 in every 75 residents has an active infection.

Three more schools have closed Thursday for two weeks of online learning: Northridge High in Davis County School District, Ogden High and Tooele High. It is the second closure for Northridge and Ogden and the third for Tooele High.