When the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine start rolling out in December, state officials say they expect somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 doses to come to Utah.
Needless to say, that’s not nearly enough.
The Utah Department of Health will submit its proposal for the vaccine rollout to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention this week. Previously, the department said Utah would prioritize front-line health care workers with the first wave of vaccinations, while the rest of the state would have to wait until late spring or summer.
On Monday, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, sent an email to Republicans and Democrats in the House asking for their input on the plan. Utah Senate leaders did not seek input on the vaccination rollout plan from their members.
“From what we understand, there will be a coordinated rollout with health care workers with COVID burden in the initial phase with other health care workers and LTC (long-term care) facilities along with other high-risk populations in the next phase,” wrote Wilson in an email to House members. He quickly received responses from lawmakers offering their own ideas and their own words of caution.
“We have to understand that there’s not going to be enough to go around at first,” said Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield. “We have to look at the front line and emergency health care providers and first responders. The people doing the actual testing ought to be vaccinated, too. From there, it just depends on how many doses we get.”
The Pfizer vaccine that is under consideration for emergency use requires two doses to be effective. That could mean 50,000 to 200,000 Utahns would be protected in the first wave.
“Our school teachers should be in the first phase,” House Majority Whip Mike Schultz, R-Hooper, wrote in an email shared with The Salt Lake Tribune. “Anything we can do to make sure schools stay open should be a top priority. I think it also sends a good message.”
Temporary school closings because of outbreaks have been a persistent problem. So far, at least 88 schools in the state have experienced a COVID-19 outbreak since the resumption of in-person classes at the end of summer. Vaccinating teachers would go a long way toward a return to normalcy.
“Please let us not forget that there are mental health workers who should also be considered front-line workers,” Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said in another email. “Those individuals who are placing themselves at risk by continuing to work with those living on the streets or in encampments.”
These suggestions from lawmakers demonstrate the tough choices facing policymakers as they try to decide who gets the vaccine first — and who must wait.
“Even if we get the full 400,000 doses, that’s just 200,000 people,” said Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo. “It’s nowhere near enough to cover all the teachers and health care workers.”
Thurston says the state should prioritize workers at long-term care facilities.
“Our goal is to flatten the curve,” he said. “If you look at all the data, most of the people who end up occupying [intensive care unit] beds come from there. If you cut the number of people who end up in ICU, if we’re not worried about running out of ICU space, then a lot of the pressure is off.”
No vaccine has been approved just yet, but that could happen in the coming weeks. If it does, distribution should begin at a rapid pace. Airlines are readying charter flights to quickly transport the vaccine to providers. States are getting their distribution plans ready to go.
Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s program to accelerate the development of a vaccine, says 40 million doses could be available in December.
No matter how the priority list takes shape, some groups that think they should be at the front of the line will have to wait. That will undoubtedly cause some hard feelings.
“I hope this decision will be driven by data and not politics,” Thurston said. “There will be some that don’t understand why they aren’t first. I would hope they wouldn’t threaten a strike or to walk off the job if they aren’t moved to the front.”
Ray said he appreciated the opportunity to weigh in on such an important issue, saying the House speaker involving more voices in the process will yield a better result and will help lawmakers buy into the final decision, whatever that may be.
He added, “I’m just glad I’m not the guy who ultimately has to make that call.”