Utah’s new governor, Spencer Cox, has an opportunity to get his administration off to a most spectacular start — or land with a horrible thud — depending on how well he handles the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines across the state.
He must take ownership of the problem, make it his top priority, bring in all the stakeholders, set goals and hold people accountable. The state’s record of planning, execution and focus has been less than encouraging so far.
In the words of Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s infectious disease expert, “It’s clear we’ve let our guard down.”
Utah, Dunn said Friday, is seeing the post-holiday spike in cases we were warned about. We are still recording more than 3,000 new coronavirus cases a day. Our intensive care units are effectively full and our rate of positive tests is still hovering in a frightening 30% range.
The plan Cox announced Friday was a step in the right direction. He gave state’s 13 local health departments the direct responsibility for scheduling and administering the vaccines. He set a list of priorities for groups to receive the shots — health care workers and nursing home residents first, teachers and school staff next week, those over age 70 the week after that.
The number of vaccinations administered must be reported daily, and health facilities that don’t keep up will face having their allotments redirected to other places in need.
The governor sees that rapid and efficient distribution of the vaccine is not only the key to saving lives, it also will make it much more likely that, as Utah exhausts each shipment of doses, it will have proven itself worthy of receiving more from the federal government.
Cox also stressed that the availability of the vaccine is not a reason for any of us to relax. If anything, the hope that we are near the end of the worst of the pandemic should give people the strength to continue with other measures to save lives, wearing masks, keeping our distance, getting tested and, when necessary, isolating ourselves.
The plan, if it works, will be wonderful news for the members of the Salt Lake City School Board, who have taken a lot of heat from those who think educational opportunities are destroyed by online learning and those who think lives are threatened by in-person classes. The board tied the reopening of schools to the availability of vaccine, which now appears to be coming soon.
In theory, Utah should have a relatively easy job of all this.
Cox has been involved in the efforts up to now as lieutenant governor and chair of the state’s coronavirus task force.
The vast majority of our population lives, works and goes to school along the Wasatch Front. When there is no vaccine, that’s a problem. When there is a vaccine, it should make it easier to reach everyone in a short period of time.
Our population also skews young, and our people tend to be relatively healthy. That should make it easier to focus our limited supply of vaccine to the most vulnerable — mostly the elderly, their caretakers and front line health care workers — while waiting to have enough for everyone.
Our state is also fortunate to be served by some of the best health care networks in the nation — Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health — along with other providers and county health departments. We have the necessary infrastructure to meet the challenge.
Despite all those built-in advantages, Utah’s transmission rates have been among the highest.
Meanwhile, shipments of vaccine to all states have been far less than we hoped for or was promised. There apparently is no national distribution plan, nor a common set of standards for how we should prioritize those who receive their vaccinations first, second and sometime down the road.
In such a time of national crisis, that is nothing less than a disgrace.
Even the best-laid plans are susceptible to shocks due to anything from people’s travel habits to global pharmaceutical supply chains. That’s why continued planning, action and transparency are necessary.
Get it done now, Gov. Cox.