Utah is expected to receive an additional 7,000 weekly COVID-19 vaccine doses starting next week, Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday, an allocation that will help the state as it works to inoculate those age 70 and older.
The increase announced by President Joe Biden’s administration will boost Utah’s allocationof first doses from 33,000 doses per week to about 40,000 doses per week, as the state has administered all of its weekly allocation for two weeks in a row.
“That’s again, just great news,” Cox said during a weekly virtual news briefing on COVID-19 Thursday. “Those are our first doses that we’ll be able to get into arms, again, prioritizing our 70 and over population and making sure that over the course of the next month, we’re able to get through all of them.”
The state is also anticipating that the approval of two additional vaccines this spring could help speed up its vaccine distribution, Cox said — something that could lead to “a tripling or more of the weekly doses coming into the state of Utah.”
The federal government could approve the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine sometime in February, and Utah could get some by March, he said. Shortly after that, Cox said, he’s hopeful that the Astra Zeneca vaccine will receive approval in the United States and that those doses could become available to residents in Utah by sometime in April.
That means that, in the next few months, the state could “significantly increase” the population eligible for vaccines based on age and chronic health conditions, he said.
“If we can now start to get over 100,000 doses a week in March and April, that means we can go through those categories, significantly reduce the age limitations on getting the vaccine and protect lots of lives,” Cox said.
As the state prepares to receive additional vaccine doses, Cox said he could imagine preserving the most effective vaccines for those who are most vulnerable and giving the slightly less effective ones to those who are less at risk of negative impacts from the virus.
Once the state opens up vaccinations to people with chronic health conditions, Cox doesn’t anticipate that they will be required to provide evidence of their health status — a process he said could be onerous and slow down the system.
Instead, he said, the state will be working on the “honor system.”
”I would obviously encourage people not to cheat the system, but we’re not going to require extensive paperwork to prove those comorbidities. At least right now that’s the plan,” he noted.
The newly inaugurated governor began his weekly news conference Thursday by celebrating the advances made in nearly a year since the first coronavirus case came to the state last March, noting that he’s the most optimistic he’s been since the pandemic began.
”We have people that are getting their second doses and have immunity from this disease,” he said. “Even the best experts were telling us a year ago it would be at least 18 months and maybe a couple years before we could have vaccines that work. This is truly a miracle of modern science.”
Cox said as of Thursday, 267,027 COVID-19 doses have been administered in the state — an increase of 73,250 over last week. That includes 223,938 first doses and 43,089 second doses.
Responding to news reports about wasted doses in other states, Cox says that is “not happening in Utah.” He says none of the state’s backlog of doses expired and that the state has since eliminated that pileup.
However, Cox said, the state has “done an audit of a report of wasted doses in the state and we discovered there were a total of 95 doses that were unable to be distributed” — less than 1% of the 395,000 or so doses that have been shipped to the state.
“Most were because the vial or the syringes were broken in transit or in that delivery process or due to vaccine being drawn into the syringe that was not able to be administered at that time for whatever reason,” he said.
The total number of doses delivered to the state as of Thursday was 397,000, a UDOH spokesman said after the news conference. That includes 244,325 first doses, plus 152,675 second doses that are administered weeks after people receive their first doses.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said Wednesday that she wrapped up a tour of Utah’s local health districts last week as part of the state’s effort to understand and address the challenges they face and provide resources to mitigate those problems.
”When I first started this tour, we had thousands of doses in the possession of local health departments that were older than seven days,” she said.
As of last week, 100% of those doses had been administered, as well as the doses they received that week, she said.
Henderson said the state has directed local health departments to compile a list of people who want an appointment but haven’t been able to get one because of demand, so they can work with them as new doses become available. Qualified people on those lists could also be called “on a moment’s notice” to get any extra doses that are available at the end of a day, she added.
Health departments are also working to identify people who are homebound and need vaccines taken to them, Henderson noted.
The state’s county and regional health departments have the capacity to administer up to 77,400 vaccines a week with current resources and plans, Henderson said.
But state leaders are working to get a “sustainable increase” to 143,300 doses each week, as more vaccines are expected. They also identifying mass vaccination sites for when new doses come in to play.
As vaccines get into arms and the state has seen a decline in the rolling seven-day average of new coronavirus cases, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said Utah is trending in the right direction by several measures.
But she encouraged Utahns to stay vigilant and “keep doing what we’re doing” to slow the spread of the virus, prevent deaths and keep hospitals from overflowing — particularly in light of evidence that a new U.K. variant of the virus is spreading in the Beehive State.
”We don’t have enough Utahns vaccinated yet to be able to rely on vaccines as the only prevention measure,” she said. “So we need to continue wearing masks, physical distancing [and] avoiding large gatherings.”
Cox said the state is beginning conversations with policymakers and health experts to figure out when to lift coronavirus restrictions, like mask mandates, as more people get vaccinated and cases decline.
“There will come a time when we reach that threshold and make those changes,” he said. “We haven’t decided exactly what that is.”
Cox said he also wanted to push back on the narrative that vaccinations shouldn’t change people’s behaviors, noting that could discourage some people from getting inoculated.
He said people who have been vaccinated “can and should spend time together” and that “you should be able to hug your grandkids and those types of things once you get that.”
The science is still out on whether vaccinated people can still spread COVID-19. But Cox said there’s a need to ensure leaders are “projecting hope to people that there is an end to this — both individually and collectively.”