Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says second doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be released as first shots after waiting period

The Republican governor has made vaccinations, budget rollout focuses of his first weeks in office.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday announced the state won’t be letting booster shots of the coronavirus wait on shelves if the intended recipient doesn’t show up for a second dose.

The best use of the 104,000 second doses in the state’s stockpile has been a matter of discussion between health experts and officials lately — with some state lawmakers arguing they should be repurposed as first doses to maximize the number of people with partial protection from the virus.

But Cox says leaders in the state’s coronavirus response believe it’s important to give first-dose recipients a chance to get fully inoculated.

“There is a name on every one of those second doses,” the Republican governor said during a news conference televised by PBS Utah.

If people miss their appointment, though, it doesn’t make sense to let those vaccines sit around, he said. So after consulting with health officials, state leaders on Wednesday decided that any second doses left waiting for longer than seven days will be released as first doses.

That doesn’t mean people who forgot their second-shot appointment are out of luck, he added. Since officials know that there will always be a certain number of no-shows, Cox said, they anticipate they’ll always have enough extra doses to cover everyone.

“We won’t have a growing glut of second doses,” he said. “They will always be repurposed.”

The idea of reappropriating the state’s entire second-dose stockpile for first shots has come up for discussion, he said, adding that he’s been supportive of exhausting all the available vaccine.

However, health experts “are recommending that we not make that change right now,” given the lack of evidence on how much immunity the first dose affords without the second, he said. The same conversation is playing out nationally and internationally, as leaders debate whether it’s better to maximize the number of people with at least one shot or prioritize full inoculation, Cox continued.

“This is a much broader question than something that we can just do here in Utah,” he said. “We really do need the scientific community and some consensus around this.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn also told reporters recently that experts don’t yet know what happens when there’s a significant delay in administering a second dose of the vaccine.

“A couple of weeks late isn’t going to make a difference, and that’s for sure,” she said. “But we will learn later kind of what that — it’s called a catch-up schedule — would look like. But, for now, just get the second dose whenever you can get in and try to get it as close to the [recommended] 21 or 28 days as possible.”

The monthly PBS Utah news conference was the first of Cox’s term and took place just hours before his inaugural State of the State address to the Utah lawmakers and residents. The first few weeks on the job have been eventful, as he’s dealt with threats of armed protest at the state Capitol, rolled out a $22 billion budget proposal and overseen a shift in the state’s vaccine rollout effort.

Since he took office earlier this month, Cox has lowered the vaccine eligibility age from 75 to 70 and pushed to expedite statewide vaccinations by issuing an executive order requiring facilities to use doses within seven days. After that week, any remaining vaccines would be redistributed by the state to other sites.

These changes have sped the process of inoculating people against COVID-19, Cox said, reporting on Thursday that local health departments, hospitals and community nursing services are all close to their goal of turning around vaccines within seven days.

“Our partners have stepped up in a very big way over the last two weeks,” he said.

However, vaccines distributed to Walgreens and CVS have been waiting around longer than state officials would like, he said. Cox estimated that 26,000 doses sent to these pharmacies — commissioned by the federal government to administer shots in long-term care facilities — have been sitting for longer than seven days.

The governor said these pharmacies have assured Utah officials that they are ramping up their effort in order to make a dent in their stockpile. Still, the federal government seems to have sent these pharmacies far more vaccines than they can use, and Cox said the state is trying to “peel back” the excess so these doses can go to people 70 or older.

The state has no evidence at this point that any doses have been discarded or gone to waste in Utah, he said.

Changes in the White House

During the news conference, Cox also praised President Joe Biden for his inauguration speech Wednesday and some of his first actions as the nation’s commander in chief. The Democratic president’s address emphasized unity and hope, and Utah’s Republican governor said he’s optimistic that he’ll be able to work across party lines with the new administration.

“I think it was a speech that Ronald Reagan would’ve been proud of,” said Cox, who was invited to the inauguration but was unable to attend because of official obligations.

Cox also noted that Biden wants to fully reimburse states for the cost of National Guard personnel and supplies needed for the ongoing vaccination effort. And he welcomed the new administration’s efforts to increase production of N95 masks, which offer greater protection from COVID-19 than the ubiquitous cloth face coverings.

The state will also be asking the federal government for more insight into the “flow of vaccines” to Utah and how that might increase as new manufacturers are approved, with Johnson & Johnson expected to release their trial results shortly.

— Tribune reporter Sean P. Means contributed to this report.