Utah getting more COVID-19 vaccines to its minority populations, Gov. Spencer Cox says

The ‘pause’ in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could stall efforts to reach ‘frontier communities,’ Cox said.

Utah is closing the gap in vaccinating its ethnic minority populations against COVID-19, Gov. Spencer Cox said — though the nationwide pause in doling out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine could put a speed bump in those efforts.

A month ago, 18,700 Latinos had been vaccinated statewide, Cox said Thursday during his monthly news conference at the PBS Utah studios in Salt Lake City. As of this week, that number has gone up to 85,800.

Similarly, the number of Asian Americans in Utah to get at least one dose of the vaccine has risen from 6,900 to 31,500. And the number of Black Utahns vaccinated is up from 2,400 to 8,400.

The pause in distributing the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine — recommended by federal health agencies after a handful of cases of blood clotting, out of millions of doses in arms — “shouldn’t disrupt us much,” Cox said. “It could slow things down in getting to those harder-to-reach communities.”

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was a boon to what Cox called Utah’s “frontier communities” — small, isolated towns where health care services are harder to access. With the one-dose vaccine, Cox said, “you could go out and do a one-day clinic for everyone in the community.”

Cox said he was “fearful” that the pause, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and expected to last into next week, “will have serious negative connotations with people who are hesitant to get the vaccine in the first place.”

The incidence of blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are “minuscule,” Cox said. “I probably had a bigger chance of getting into a car accident on the way to this [news conference].”

Cox added that “we need to help Utahns and Americans understand that the risk from the virus is so much greater than the risk from this vaccine.”

He said he has no plans to change the state’s plan to have public school students continue to wear masks through June 15. Parents’ groups have picketed local school districts to lift the mask mandate, even though those districts are following a health order issued by the Utah Department of Health.

“I understand this is so hard. I would like nothing more than to be completely done with masks, everywhere,” Cox said. He reassured parents that there are no plans to continue mask requirements into the fall.

The statewide mask mandate expired last Saturday, thanks to a law the Utah Legislature passed and Cox signed. Private businesses and other entities have maintained their own mask requirements.

Cox stressed that there are no limits on mass gatherings, other than that masks be worn when there are 50 or more people in one place. He also emphasized that there are no state-ordered restrictions on religious organizations — and any limits in places of worship are voluntary efforts by the religious groups themselves.

Three more counties — Kane, Millard and Washington — have moved to the “low” transmission category, Cox said. That puts 12 counties, most of them in the southern part of Utah or in rural pockets, in the “low” designation. The other 17 counties, including in the population centers of the Wasatch Front, remain in the “moderate” transmission level.

Cox announced one change to the state’s vaccine eligibility policy: From now on, Utahns who have tested positive for COVID-19 do not have to wait 90 days to get an appointment to be vaccinated.

The rule had been in place because “there is some immunity that is conveyed from having the virus,” Cox said, and so that limited supplies of the vaccine would get to non-immune people first. Now that vaccine supplies are plentiful, Cox said, the rule is no longer necessary.

In the last week, 204,969 Utahns have received either their first or second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine — which Cox called “our biggest week yet.”

Among those getting vaccinated Thursday were Cox and his wife, first lady Abby Cox. The governor said they were scheduled to get their second doses of the Pfizer vaccine in Spanish Fork, where they received their first dose three weeks ago in front of TV cameras.