Utah’s next wave of COVID-19 vaccinations will start March 1, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday — with people 65 and older, and people with some severe and chronic health conditions, next in line to get their shots.
Those groups make up about 400,000 Utahns, Cox said at the state’s weekly COVID-19 media briefing, and the state should be ready for that influx when increased shipments of the vaccine arrive from now through April.
The federal government announced Tuesday that it would be shipping an additional 5% of its current vaccine allocation to Utah — on top of the 16% increase announced last week, Cox said. That’s a total of about 42,000 doses this week, he said, plus another 8,000 doses the state got back from federal partners.
Utah is planning on receiving another 33,000 doses of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine per week by late March, Cox said. Another 84,000 per week of the AstraZeneca version of the vaccine could be arriving by April, Cox said.
That volume “just changes the ballgame for all of us and that’s what we are planning for,” he said. “That’s what we are preparing for.”
The state will spend the rest of February, Cox and state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said, getting doses out to people already eligible for the vaccine — mainly people 70 years old and older.
As of Thursday morning, Cox said, about 35% of Utahns in that age group have received their shots. “That’s about 84,000 of you, and that’s just in a couple weeks, so we are well on our way, again, to getting those that are most at risk vaccinated and saving lives,” Cox said.
Cox assured Utahns that people over 70 who are struggling to get a vaccination appointment “will be able to get theirs” in the coming weeks.
Cox also implored people in the 65-and-up group, and people over 18 with the specified underlying health conditions (see the list below), not to call their county health departments just yet. More information will be coming from the Utah Department of Health and local health departments in the next few weeks, he said.
Who gets the vaccine next?
Utahns 65 and older, and those over 18 with certain severe and chronic health conditions, will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine on March 1. Here is a list of those qualifying health conditions, according to the Utah Department of Health:
• Solid organ transplant recipients.
• Certain cancers.
• People who are immunocompromised (have a weakened immune system) from blood, bone marrow or organ transplants; HIV; use of corticosteroids long-term, or use of other immune-weakening medicines long-term.
• Severe kidney disease or dialysis, or with stage 4 or 5 chronic kidney disease.
• Uncontrolled diabetes.
• Severe obesity (body mass index over 40).
• Chronic liver disease, including chronic hepatitis B or C.
• Chronic heart disease (not including hypertension).
• Severe chronic respiratory disease (other than asthma).
• Neurologic conditions that impair respiratory function, including Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, quadriplegia or hemiplegia.
• Stroke and dementia (Alzheimer’s, vascular, frontotemporal).
• Asplenia, including splenectomy or a spleen dysfunction, including sickle cell disease.
As the state ramps up its vaccination distribution, Cox said, “there will be scheduling issues.”
“In every state, in every country in the world, there’s going to be a little chaos in making this happen,” Cox said. “We are going to embrace that chaos, we’re going to solve that chaos, and we’re going to get shots in arms within seven days of getting that vaccine and we are going to save lives.”
Once that broader eligibility opens up March 1, Dunn said, the state will be relying on the honor system. “If you don’t fall in those categories … don’t seek a vaccine,” she said.
The quicker the state can get through high-risk populations, the quicker people who are lower risk can get a vaccination, Dunn added.
Utah reached an “important milestone” in its vaccine rollout on Thursday, Cox said: More vaccine doses have been given to people than the number of Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19.
A total of 362,701 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Thursday, and 84,154 people have received both doses.
As of Thursday, 351,273 Utahns have tested positive for COVID-19. The rate of positive COVID-19 tests in Utah has been holding steadily around 16%, or more than three times the rate state health officials have said indicates the virus is under control.
“We are trying to be more viral than the virus and it’s happening,” Cox said.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said 29 Smith’s pharmacies and 18 Walmart locations will be receiving vaccine doses in Utah starting Feb. 11. Only Utahns over 70 will be able to get vaccines through those locations for now.
“The state actually has control over who is eligible” to get the vaccines through Walmart and Smith’s, Henderson said.
People who have appointments through their health department should keep those appointments, she said, rather than trying to get one through Smith’s or Walmart.
There will be more information on how Utahns can volunteer to help with the vaccine distribution in the coming days, Henderson added.
The state has taken competitive bids from companies looking to distribute vaccines, Cox said at the news conference — and one bid came from Nomi Health, the Orem health care technology company contracted to run TestUtah.
Cox said Nomi was successful in a bid for a contract to help with vaccine distribution. What Nomi’s work will be “remains to be seen,” Cox said — but that after local health districts, pharmacies and other entities have hit their capacity, Nomi and other “partners” will be asked “how can you help us close that gap to make sure that we don’t have doses sitting on shelves?”
TestUtah was launched in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, as a philanthropic, volunteer effort to get people tested for the coronavirus — though companies involved quickly secured millions of taxpayer dollars in no-bid contracts. Questions arose last spring about the accuracy of TestUtah’s testing, and the company defended its work. The state’s new testing contract required Nomi to change tests and the lab it uses.
Dunn touted the importance of Johnson & Johnson’s version of the vaccine, which the federal Food and Drug Administration could approve for emergency use as soon as this month. She said comparisons made in national media between the effectiveness of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and those made by Pfizer and Moderna have been “misinformed.”
Johnson & Johnson trials have proven the vaccine to be effective at protecting 72% of U.S. individuals against COVID-19 infection and is 85% effective against severe disease, Dunn said.
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines reported efficacy rates of above 94% — but, Dunn said, it’s a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Pfizer and Moderna tested their vaccines for symptomatic infection resulting from COVID-19, while Johnson & Johnson tested its vaccine for preventing moderate to severe illness, she said.
“It’s very important that once the vaccine becomes available, when it becomes our turn to take the vaccine, we all get the vaccine,” regardless of the company that produced it, Dunn said.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose, where the Pfizer and Moderna versions require two doses, weeks apart. That, Dunn said, makes the Johnson & Johnson version ideal for inoculating people experiencing homelessness. Plans are in the works, she said, to get vaccines to those groups when they become available.