Gov. Spencer Cox promises to speed up COVID-19 vaccinations in Utah

The second phase of the vaccine rollout will start Jan. 18, Cox said, with Utahns over 70 and older.

Gov. Spencer Cox issued an executive order Friday aimed at speeding up Utah’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

”This virus does not sleep. This virus does not take weekends off. And neither should we,” Cox said Friday at his first COVID-19 media briefing.

Cox also announced that the minimum age for people getting the vaccine when the rollout’s second phase begins is being lowered to 70. Cox’s predecessor, Gov. Gary Herbert, had set eligibility at age 75.

In his executive order, Cox said he is putting a priority on vaccinating staff and residents at the state’s long-term care facilities — which began almost two weeks ago — and working with federally contracted providers to get the vaccines to those facilities faster.

As of Friday, Cox said, 153 of the state’s 353 long-term facilities had received their vaccines — some 9,000 doses, he said. Cox said he has set a goal of providing vaccines to all 353 facilities by Jan. 23.

Overall, only about 90,000 of more than 198,875 doses delivered in Utah have been reported as being given to health care workers, nursing home residents and emergency responders, said Joe Dougherty, spokesman for the state’s emergency management operations after the news conference.

“I have made it no secret that I am disappointed that we have not been able to meet the very high expectations for vaccine distribution,” Cox said.

Under the executive order, any facility that receives the vaccine must use its doses within a week, Cox said. If doses are unused after a week, they will be redistributed by the state to other facilities, he said.

Because data entry delays are believed to be part of the reason vaccines appear to be used at such a slow rate, the order requires every facility to report the number of vaccinations it performs to the Utah Department of Health by 7 a.m. every day.

It’s not clear whether data delays are the only reason so many vaccines that were shipped to Utah appear to remain unused. UDOH reported Friday that 77,228 vaccines have been given out since Dec. 15 and reported to the Utah Statewide Immunization Information System. Meanwhile, more recent survey data showed 89,431 doses have been put in people’s arms.

Meanwhile, Intermountain Healthcare said it expected to have given all 30,000 doses it has received by the end of the day Friday. University of Utah Hospital said it had used about 13,000 of its 14,000 doses, with the remaining 1,000 set to be given out in the next few days, before its next weekly shipment arrives.

But at the U., for instance, hospital staff had access to a large information technology team that was able to quickly integrate its medical records and online vaccine registration with the state’s reporting system, said Dr. Tom Miller, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

It is very likely that smaller hospitals and care facilities, lacking that technology, would be focused on getting shots into the arms of staff, rather than entering vaccination data into the state’s system, Miller said.

“A lot of places are not electronically capable to upload and send vaccination information to the state” instantaneously, Miller said. That may be causing the state’s count of doses used to be off by tens of thousands, he estimated.

The new daily reporting deadline should give the state a clearer picture of how quickly vaccine doses are being dispensed, Dougherty said.

As the vaccination effort shifts from hospitals and other facilities to the public, local health districts will manage the vaccine distribution, Cox said. They are being tasked to give out 50,000 doses of vaccine a week — more than the 33,000 doses a week that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are allocating for Utah.

“We will be able to exceed, with capacity, the actual number of doses we are receiving,” Cox said. He said routing Utahns through county or regional health departments will make it easier for residents to get their vaccine, rather than dealing with a range of providers, while supplies are limited.

Utah’s teachers will start getting their vaccines Monday, Cox said. He said he is telling school districts to prioritize older teachers, and those with underlying health conditions, to get the vaccine first.

The second phase of the vaccine rollout, targeting people 70 and older, will start Jan. 18, Cox said.

Cox finalized the decision to lower the minimum age on Thursday, a spokeswoman said. Cox’s office and UDOH determined the state would have enough vaccine by late February to give shots to more people in that age group — in addition to the health care workers and other groups receiving the vaccine in Phase 1.

Cox said the state also would focus on getting vaccines to Utah’s minority populations. “We must take extra caution not to make the same mistakes we made early in the pandemic, without having testing sites in those areas,” Cox said.

Cox, who was inaugurated Monday, said he met with health officials from around the state this week, and told them that “there is nothing more important, in any of our careers, collectively, than what we are doing right now. This is what the world has been waiting for. This is what we will be judged by. Our ability to get these live-saving, and career-saving, economy-saving, health-saving drugs out to the people who need them the most.”

Asked about a report that the incoming Biden administration will release all available vaccine doses immediately, Cox said, “we are prepared, and will be ready, when and if that actually occurs.”

The state has received 5,000 doses of monoclonal antibodies — the same infusion treatment that President Donald Trump received when he contracted COVID-19 last fall — and they will be distributed to Utah’s long-term care facilities, Cox said.

The monoclonal treatment had been available only in hospitals, but it’s less effective with people who are so sick with COVID-19 that they had to be hospitalized. That created a Catch-22, Cox said, that he hopes to alleviate by making the treatment available in long-term care facilities.

Cox reminded Utahns that even though the vaccine will provide relief from the pandemic, the virus is still raging.

“Unfortunately, this disease is surging again,” Cox said. “The fundamentals still apply, my fellow Utahns. Wear a mask. Social distancing. Contact tracing.”