Utah Health Department unveils COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Jessica Picaso and Estefania Mondragon test a patient for COVID-19 during an event sponsored by Comunidades Unidas at Mid-Valley Health Clinic in Midvale, May 20, 2020.

Utah health officials anticipate a coronavirus vaccine will be available between late November and early January — and once it’s here, they say they’ll be ready.

The Utah Department of Health told the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Interim Committee on Wednesday that the first doses will go to those who staff emergency departments, urgent care facilities, COVID-19 units and long-term care facilities, as well as to those health care workers who have preexisting health conditions.

If there is a limited number of doses, special prioritization will be given to those in the hospitals with the highest COVID-19 response levels: The University of Utah Hospital, Intermountain Medical Center, LDS Hospital and Utah Valley Regional Hospital.

“These are the ones that see, again, the most COVID patients and the health care providers there are most at risk,” explained Rich Lakin, immunization program manager for the Utah Department of Health.

Lakin said health officials are anticipating that there will be a limited number of doses available early on but said they also expect those in long-term care facilities will be vaccinated through major pharmacies toward the end of the first phase of distribution.

Walgreens and CVS are going to receive the vaccine directly from the federal government, and what that means is this is going to be a different component of the vaccination process in Utah,” he told lawmakers Wednesday. “They are going to be responsible for long-term care facility residents.”

Nursing homes and similar types of long-term care facilities — such as rehabilitation centers, homes for the disabled and licensed assisted-living centers — have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and have accounted for a high percentage of the state’s more than 500 deaths.

In the second wave of vaccine distribution, Lakin said pharmacies, clinics and other health care providers will be able to administer the vaccine and that first responders, EMS personnel and pharmacies, doctors' offices and clinic staff who didn’t receive a vaccine in the first phase will be able to get one.

It’s possible the general public could be inoculated during the second phase if there are enough doses available. But Lakin said it’s “most likely” they will receive one in the third and final phase of distribution.

A New York Times tracker shows scientists are working to develop a vaccine at a breakneck pace. Researchers are testing 48 vaccines in clinical trials on humans, and at least 89 preclinical vaccines are under active investigation in animals, the Times reports.

Still, Lakin said he wasn’t sure exactly when a vaccine would come down the pipeline, noting that he’d asked the Centers for Disease Control that very question on a conference call last week and that they “did not give me a good answer, unfortunately.”

“But they did tell me kind of a time frame: November to January,” he said. “My assumption is that we’ll probably receive a vaccine in December, possibly January. But again, it could happen in November — and not November 1, but late November.”

As an approval draws nearer, Utah’s health officials say they are working on plans for how to communicate information about the safety and availability of a vaccine to the public as recent polling has indicated there may be some roadblocks in persuading Americans to take a vaccine.

A poll by The Washington Post and ABC News found seven out of 10 Americans said they would get a coronavirus vaccine if it was freely available. But an AP-NORC survey was more bleak, finding only half of Americans said they planned to get vaccinated.

Although the vast majority of Utahns get routine vaccinations, state Department of Health information shows exemptions among schoolchildren are on the rise. Those cases have especially grown in the Southwest and Summit health districts, where the department’s most recent data shows the number of exemptions for kindergartners is close to 10%.

In the final phase of vaccine distribution, Lakin noted that the health department will begin monitoring vaccine uptake “through population data.”

“This will allow us to look at populations within the state of Utah that have low vaccination rates and we maybe want to improve [that] coverage,” he said. “We’ll work with our local health departments to ensure that we can reach out to those vulnerable populations that have not received their vaccine at this point yet.”

Still, Lakin told lawmakers that there’s no indication from the CDC or the Utah Health Department that the vaccine would be be made mandatory for any particular population.

Utah Health Department Executive Director Rich Saunders said he’s “anticipating and hopeful that the vaccine will be effective and safe” but that the office is also preparing for issues around safety or effectiveness.

“We’re trying to hedge for both directions with hope in the one direction for a vaccine, which will bring a great and needed relief to the community here,” he said.