Nearly two dozen Utah legislative staffers were given access to coronavirus vaccine before the public

Legislative leaders say the House speaker and Senate president did not receive vaccinations.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the House of Representatives are partitioned by plexiglass as the Utah State Legislature opens the 2021 legislative session at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Legislative leaders revealed that some key staffers were put on the priority list for the coronavirus vaccine before the 2021 session began.

Utah legislative leaders worked with Gov. Spencer Cox to put some of their staffers on the priority list to receive the COVID-19 vaccine ahead of other members of the public, according to a statement released Monday by the Utah House.

“A few days prior to the session, we had a conversation with the Governor about having a certain number of key employees whose roles are integral to the fundamental operation of the legislative process vaccinated,” Abby Osborne, House chief of staff, said in the email statement.

Utah first allocated doses for front-line health care workers, then staff and residents of long-term care facilities and health care workers inside and outside of hospitals, followed by teachers, public safety workers and Utahns over 70. The next wave of distribution will begin March 1, when people 65 and older and those with some severe and chronic health conditions will become next in line to get their shots.

But Osborne said 22 “essential legislative staffers” were given early access to vaccinations because their duties were “deemed critical” and could not be performed remotely, according to the statement.

“No lawmakers, including the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House, or their Chiefs of Staff were offered a vaccine,” read the statement.

At least two Utah lawmakers have tested positive for the coronavirus since the legislative session began while a third, Utah Rep. Jon Hawkins, has been unable to participate in the session as he battles the virus.

A spokeswoman with the Senate confirmed that no legislators were offered the vaccine out of order “and we are not aware of any senators who received the vaccine, unless they qualified due to age or other qualifying factors.”

Osborne said the vaccines were given to staff early because “the necessary conditions working in the Legislature during our 45-day General Session are not easily amenable to contingency plans and place our employees in positions of high vulnerability to exposure from COVID-19.”

“We do not have replacement personnel who are qualified, capable or possess the institutional knowledge necessary to properly carry out the duties assigned,” she added. “Simply losing one of these essential employees to sickness or quarantine would inevitably grind the lawmaking process to a halt.”

It’s not known when the staffers were given the vaccine, but if it happened before the Jan. 19 start of the legislative session, it was more than three weeks ago.

Legislative leaders first announced the grant of early vaccinations to key staff on Monday in response to questions from The Tribune and other media about whether the speaker or other ranking lawmakers had been inoculated.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s office acknowledged it worked with legislative leaders to facilitate the vaccine for their staffers but did not prioritize anyone in the executive branch for inoculation.

“The Governor told legislative leadership that as a co-equal branch of government they could make whatever decisions they wanted regarding the vaccine, but the executive branch would not be prioritizing any staff or public officials,” a spokesperson told The Tribune in a statement.

The previously undisclosed vaccinations were in addition to several protocols instituted for lawmakers, staffers and interns to curb the spread of the coronavirus during the session, including twice-weekly testing and mandatory masks on the House and Senate floor.

Most of the plexiglass dividers between desks on the House floor were removed over the weekend at the request of lawmakers who complained they made it difficult to hear and did little to assist with social distancing, although a few remained in place on Monday.

- Salt Lake Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.