Gov. Spencer Cox says all Utahns 16 and older can start making COVID-19 vaccine appointments next week

Wednesday is when the new eligibility begins, though Salt Lake County will start scheduling appointments on Monday.

Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday that the state will open up COVID-19 vaccine distribution to every Utahn 16 and older next Wednesday.

The state previously had anticipated that vaccines would be available to all adults April 1, but Cox said the decision to open up eligibility sooner came as around 15% of appointments available for next week had not yet been filled.

“As we start to see that softening, we always want to keep demand above availability,” Cox said Thursday during his monthly news conference with PBS Utah. “We want to make sure that there are no doses sitting on shelves, and there have not been to this point.”

Opening shots up to everyone 16 and over, he said, will also help vaccine providers better reach those in rural areas and in vulnerable communities.

[Read more: White Utahns get vaccinated at twice the rate of other communities. Will new access change that?]

Within those hard-to-reach areas and communities, “when we go into those places, we want to be able to vaccinate everyone,” Cox said. “That’s the best way to increase the equitable distribution of vaccines throughout the state.”

Cox cautioned that there will “not be vaccine available for everyone in the state” next week and urged people to exercise patience, noting that phone lines may back up. He also said people should not schedule their vaccine slots until next Wednesday, so the local health departments and vaccine distribution partners can get their systems ready for a wave of people requesting appointments.

The Salt Lake County Health Department announced Thursday on Twitter that it would begin taking appointments sooner, on Monday, for dates after April 4.

Vaccines are currently available to Utahns age 50 and older and to those 16 and older with certain preexisting health conditions. The federal Food and Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer vaccine for anyone 16 or older. Anyone 18 or older can get the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson versions.

Cox said Thursday that people who are currently eligible should schedule their vaccines now and also noted that people should go back to the same place they got their first dose when they receive their second and make sure they get the same vaccine brand.

Also on Thursday, Cox announced that several new counties were moving into lower transmission categories, as daily case counts and weekly positivity rates have declined in recent weeks. Carbon and Summit counties moved to the “moderate” category this week, while Duchesne and Summit counties moved into the “low” transmission level.

Amid concerns about the impact more contagious coronavirus variants could have on the state’s progress, Cox encouraged people who aren’t vaccinated to continue wearing masks, even after the statewide mandate requiring face coverings is set to expire April 10.

“We can still keep people safe,” he said. “We’ve seen it in states quite frankly that don’t have mask mandates. People are still wearing masks at similar rates, regardless of whether a state has a mask mandate or not. And we’ve seen from our own numbers as we’ve done some polling throughout the state that people listen. People are smarter than we give them credit for.”

If cases do begin to rise with variants, he said, the Legislature could come back into session to address that.

As it stands, Cox reiterated that the bill lawmakers approved won’t do away with all mask requirements, which will still be in effect in high-risk gatherings of 50 people or more and in schools. And he said businesses are allowed to enforce mask mandates, something Harmons grocery store announced Wednesday that it would do.

The governor said he wasn’t sure whether counties could establish their own face-covering requirements under the bill.

Cox said Thursday that his primary concern as the pandemic wears on isn’t case counts; it’s vaccine hesitancy.

“What I’m concerned about right now is the willingness of people to get vaccinated,” he said. “That matters to me so much more than case counts right now because ultimately that’s how we end this and how we end this long term, and so what I worry about is as case counts go down, and restrictions are loosened and people feel more comfortable, that they’ll feel like maybe they don’t need to get vaccinated.”

A recent NPR survey conducted March 3 to 8 found sharp partisan divides in willingness to take the vaccine, with 49% of Republican men reporting that they did not plan to get the shot compared with just 6% of Democratic men who said the same. The national poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points, found that 67% of people said they either planned to get a coronavirus vaccine or had done so already.

Asked about that data, Cox said he anticipates the willingness to get inoculated is slightly higher in Utah but acknowledged there are gaps among Republican males, as well as people in rural communities.

“My message to them is, ‘Just do it, guys,’” he said. “Ironically, that’s the same group that is probably most adamant that we need to get back to normal as soon as possible.”

The governor said he’s not sure that what he says could change minds on that decision but added that the state will work with groups that could have sway, including “leaning heavily on our religious communities to help get the message out there that vaccinations work and they’re important.”

As vaccine hesitancy becomes “the obstacle to overcome,” he said, the state will also look at partnering with groups that could give out vaccines in settings that are closer to the people, such as part of church activities.