Gov. Spencer Cox says state is on track to drop COVID-19 health regulations before July 1

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Spencer Cox receives his first COVID-19 vaccine from Utah County Health Department nurse Sage Hall as state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson watch, Mar. 25, 2021. Cox, who received his vaccine live on camera Thursday, said there's been "great demand" for the COVID-19 vaccine throughout Utah, and credited vaccinations for the declining coronavirus case counts.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday that the state is on pace to eliminate all coronavirus-related health regulations before July 1, though “that could all change,” he cautioned.

That estimate is based on the current trajectory of vaccine distribution and as cases, hospitalizations and the percentage of positive coronavirus tests in Utah have been dropping, he said.

”Even if we do see an increase in cases, the fact that we have vaccinated so many of our most at risk population makes us even less vulnerable to the outcomes,” he said, speaking at his weekly news conference about the state’s coronavirus response.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said 80% of Utahns age 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Of that group, 57% have been fully vaccinated, she said, “which is also really incredible.” Among those age 70 and up, 83% have had at least one dose, and 67% have been fully vaccinated.

“We’ve been incredibly successful here in Utah,” Cox said. “As successful or more successful than any other state in vaccinating those who are most vulnerable, those over the age of 65 and those with the underlying comorbidities.”

While Cox eyes the summer months for big changes, some counties have already begun to see reductions in restrictions based on their transmission levels. This week, three counties — Garfield, Kane and Uintah — have moved from the “high” to “moderate” transmission level, he said.

The news conference comes the same week the state opened up vaccine eligibility to all Utahns 16 and older and as more than 450,000 Utahns are now fully vaccinated. Cox, who received his vaccine live on camera Thursday, said there’s been “great demand” for the COVID-19 vaccine throughout Utah, and credited vaccinations for the declining coronavirus case counts.

Immunization “is the clearest path back to normalcy for all of us, and so we encourage everyone who is now eligible — and that’s everyone over the age of 16 — to go ahead and get your vaccine scheduled,” Henderson said. While she said it may take time for everyone to get an appointment, she urged Utahns “not to wait.”

With an increase in the number of Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer vaccines coming soon to the state, Cox said he anticipates more appointments will become available.

Cox said Thursday that he had been planning to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to help convince people it was safe. But he and his wife, Abby Cox, received the Pfizer vaccine instead, after telling public health officials he’d take whatever was available, since the state hasn’t seen problems with people taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“I’m not sure exactly what word I should use to describe how happy I feel today,” he said ahead of receiving his shot. “I don’t know that words are adequate. We’re excited. We’re overjoyed. We’re relieved. We’re just, more than anything else, humbled and grateful.”

Though some in his staff encouraged the 45-year-old Cox, as governor, to get his shots early, “we wanted to do it the right way,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t get ahead in line of anybody.”

As the news conference ended, and Cox prepared to get his shot, he joked to reporters, “I have to warn you about the gun show that’s about to happen,” referring to his less-than-Schwarzeneggerian biceps. “Every day is leg day at my house.”

Cox sat down, as Sage Hall, a nurse with the Utah County Health Department, swabbed a spot on his left arm, and in a fluid motion inserted the syringe and pressed the plunger. Hall then applied a SpongeBob SquarePants bandage, while Hall’s colleague, Amy Engle, performed the same actions to Abby Cox.

”Honestly, I didn’t feel it at all,” Cox said after the shot.

As government leaders encourage Utahns to get immunized, Henderson said Thursday that state employees will have two hours of administrative leave to get their vaccinations. Henderson said she hoped that private employers “will follow the lead and do so as well.”

While vaccines are available to everyone, she noted that they’re not always accessible to everyone and said the administration is “really focusing” on inoculating hard-to-reach populations.

To that end, the state is working with home health providers to provide mobile vaccinations to those who need them, she said, a service that will be expanded in the coming weeks to include behavioral health or substance abuse treatment facilities, group homes and assisted living centers.

Local health departments are also working to set up smaller health clinics, she said, as happened recently when the Utah Muslim Civic League worked with Salt Lake County health leaders to set up a clinic at a local mosque.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn praised the state’s local health departments for helping get vaccines quickly into arms. But she indicated it’s too soon to celebrate the end of the pandemic in Utah.

With the presence of more contagious coronavirus variants in the state and even as the state’s mask mandate is slated to end early next month, she continued to urge Utahns to keep taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

“We need to continue, of course, to wear face coverings, physical distance when we can and stay home when we’re sick and of course, get the vaccine when it’s your turn, which now everyone 16 and older can sign up to do so,” she said.

Also on Thursday, Cox noted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will start offering assistance next month to cover funeral expenses for people who died from COVID-19. People can apply for up to $9,000 per person, he said.

Details are still being ironed out for the program, created in the recent federal stimulus package, Cox said. But people who have lost loved ones should start collecting their paperwork — a death certificate that confirms the person’s death is attributable to COVID-19, receipts of funeral expenses, and proof of funds received from other sources — before the application process begins in April.