Utah legislators are pressing the state to expedite its massive COVID-19 inoculation effort by depleting its stockpile of booster doses and by promising to abolish mask mandates and emergency orders as soon as enough people achieve immunity.
During a Wednesday legislative hearing, the state’s store of 104,000 booster vaccines emerged as a source of concern for some state lawmakers, who argued that setting aside doses makes little sense given the urgency of protecting people against a virus that has killed more than 1,500 Utahns.
“I don’t want to die of dehydration with my canteen half full of water,” state Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, told health department officials during a Wednesday legislative committee meeting.
Instead, Ray and other state lawmakers contend, Utah leaders should exhaust the state’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible — even if it means repurposing some of these intended booster shots as first doses and giving partial protection to more people.
Ray also wants to give average Utahns another reason to get immunized quickly, with a forthcoming proposal that would automatically rescind government-issued coronavirus restrictions as soon as at least 55% of the population has been vaccinated or recovered from coronavirus.
“We’re done. We’re business as usual,” Ray said in an interview Wednesday. “Because we’re in that herd immunity.”
The lawmaker’s proposed definition of herd immunity is lower than the 60% to 70% that many epidemiologists have cited during the pandemic. And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, recently said vaccination levels of nearly 90% might be needed to reach herd immunity.
Ray called his proposed 55% benchmark a “starting point” that might shift as legislators deliberate over his bill but said the elderly Utahns who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 should be completely vaccinated by the time the state reaches his suggested threshold.
And the prospect of an end to COVID-19 restrictions could serve a as a powerful motivator to people who are on the fence about getting a vaccine, he contends.
“When you say here’s a number, and if we attain that number, we can go back to normal. We can open our businesses and start functioning again, I think that gives people a reason,” he said.
During Wednesday’s legislative hearing, Sen. Jacob Anderegg agreed with Ray on using up booster doses, arguing that exhausting the available vaccines could put the state in a better position to advocate for more from the federal government.
“We’ve been working with our congressional delegation saying, ‘Hey we need more vaccines,’ and they’re saying, ‘Use what you’ve got,’” the Lehi Republican said. “It seems counterintuitive to me to sit on these when we could be pushing them through.”
Heather Borski, deputy director at the Utah Department of Health (UDOH), told lawmakers that the current policy of reserving second-round vaccines has prioritized fully inoculating critical populations, such as frontline health care workers, teachers, long-term care facility residents and people over the age of 70. But given the disagreement on that point, leaders of the state’s coronavirus response met Wednesday about whether to keep setting aside these booster shots or begin administering them as a first dose.
“There are many who believe we should continue to just store them in the freezer because we have to protect the second dose,” said Richard Saunders, the health department’s interim executive director. “And there are many that believe we should take that excess and just trust that we’ll get future doses from the manufacturer.”
Saunders said Gov. Spencer Cox and members of the state’s Unified Command discussed the issue Wednesday afternoon “to see if we can come to a conclusion, at least for now.”
A state health department spokesman later declined comment on the discussion, which was expected to focus on how long to hold a second dose in reserve before releasing it as a first dose.
During the Wednesday morning meeting on social services appropriations, state lawmakers also said they feared that financial and bureaucratic hurdles would bog down the critical vaccine administration effort. For instance, local health department officials have been complaining they don’t have the manpower for the mammoth task, Anderegg said, and he wondered why the state hasn’t called on Utah’s clinics to assist.
“Why in the world are we bottlenecking this?” Anderegg said.
In response, Saunders said first doses went specifically to hospitals so they could inoculate their staff. As the state moved on to other priority populations, coronavirus response leaders reasoned that it would be more efficient to roll out the handful of available doses primarily through local health departments.
“We’re trying to control how many locations we have to manage because the storage issue is a big issue,” Saunders said. “As well as trying to keep track of inventory and work together as a statewide system to be able to move vaccine.”
Addressing concerns about local resources, the UDOH head said he’s visited these agencies with Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and can attest that these agencies have an “open ticket” for manpower, technology or other help from the state.
But Anderegg indicated that this account doesn’t line up with what he and other lawmakers have heard from local health departments and said he plans to join Saunders and Henderson this weekend as they visit some of these agencies.
The vaccination discussion also touched on the idea of lowering Utah’s vaccination age from 70 to 65. Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who advocated Tuesday for dropping the age, repeated the request, noting that most of the Utahns who have died of COVID-19 were age 65 or over.
And Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, asked health officials if they have a plan for reaching communities that face barriers in accessing health care.
Borski said the health department is considering messaging strategies and vaccination site placement to address Hollins’ concerns.
“We do need strategies to ensure that those population groups can access vaccine easily,” she said. “And that we don’t further enhance health disparities among amongst population groups who may have a harder time accessing vaccines.”
Overall, Borski told lawmakers, more than 156,000 first doses and 15,000 second doses of the coronavirus vaccine have been administered in Utah. The state currently has on hand about 43,000 first doses that have been sitting on shelves for longer than seven days — or past the deadline by which Cox has ordered facilities to use up available shots.
Most of those yet-unused vaccines were originally distributed to CVS and Walgreens, which partnered with the federal government to inoculate nursing home residents, Borski said. She added that it appeared the pharmacies had received more doses than necessary to vaccinate residents and staff at long-term care facilities and said incoming shipments to CVS and Walgreens are being diverted to other vaccination sites.