SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov.-elect Spencer Cox is optimistic that Utah “can get back to normal soon” with COVID-19 vaccines performing better than expected amid ongoing approval processes.
“All Utahns can anticipate a June or July time frame when they can start receiving the vaccine,” said Rich Lakin, director of immunizations at the Utah Department of Health.
That is, however, if everything goes as expected, he said.
Vaccines from major pharmaceutical manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna Therapeutics are approaching the final stages of approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and states have already submitted distribution plans, prioritizing who will get the first doses that become available, when they do.
Utah’s plan is “based on the honor code,” aside from the most in-demand hospitals, which will get the first doses that come to the state, Lakin said.
The plan is divided into phases, with waves of vaccine distribution based on the number of vaccines received, which is initially based on Utah’s share of the entire population of the United States.
The fact that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses to be fully effective — 21 and 28 days apart, respectively — will also impact the number of people vaccinated.
“We’re estimating somewhere around 100,000 doses will come to Utah,” Lakin said during a meeting held Wednesday at the state’s Emergency Operations Center at the state Capitol.
Cases still surging
Meanwhile, another 3,071 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Utah on Wednesday, bringing the state’s total number of known infections since mid-March to 162,028, the health department reports.
It estimates the rolling seven-day average number of new cases daily to be about 3,161, with a 24.1% positive test rate.
More than 1,278,951 people have been tested, including an increase of 13,251 from Tuesday.
Another nine deaths were reported by the health department on Wednesday, putting Utah’s COVID-19 death toll at 740 lives lost.
There are also 541 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout Utah, with 201 in intensive care units.
The health department reports that nearly 85% of all hospital beds are now being used, treating COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, indicating “major strains” on the health care system in Utah.
Hospital officials have said the greatest strain is on caregivers, many of whom are working extra shifts and extended hours to provide for the elevated demand for care.
Public health orders have been issued, including a mask mandate in effect statewide, until the surges in new cases can be calmed, particularly to avoid overwhelming the health care systems in the state.
More than a week into the latest provision, though, the numbers don’t appear to be letting up.
Vaccines — most likely Pfizer’s will be available first — will first go to the five hospitals in the state that are experiencing the greatest burden from COVID-19, including LDS Hospital, University of Utah Hospital, Intermountain Medical Center, Utah Valley Hospital and Dixie Regional Medical Center.
It will be up to those health systems and hospital administrators to decide how the doses will be distributed within those hospitals.
Lakin said those doses should start to arrive in Utah before the end of this month, but won’t be able to be administered until FDA approval is granted. Pfizer’s vaccine also requires highly technical ultra-cold storage, minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, to maintain its quality.
“It is very difficult to plan when we don’t know how much vaccine we will have,” Lakin said, adding that teams of people have met for months to determine the best path. “With limited doses, it will obviously impact how fast we can move the vaccinations to get everybody vaccinated.”
Once those high-risk hospital personnel are inoculated, and more vaccines become available, doses will be distributed to other hospitals, long-term care facilities and first responders.
At that point, Walgreens and CVS pharmacies will begin to receive vaccines as part of their partnerships with the federal government to help administer them to long-term care facility residents and others not previously vaccinated.
Lakin puts that happening in about February or March. He said long-term care facilities will be a top priority, as they’ve seen the highest number of cases and ongoing outbreaks.
From there, a coalition of community partners will have prioritized a list of occupations based on their risk levels and ability to work from home. Members of the general public will begin to have access to the vaccine, based on where they fall on that spectrum of risk.
Getting Utahns vaccinated
From March to July, Lakin estimates people over age 65 and those with underlying medical conditions, as well as harder-hit tribal entities and ethnic groups, will have access to the COVID-19 vaccine, depending on how many doses are available.
And after the greatest risks have been taken care of, then all Utahns will have the opportunity to be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus that has been impacting nearly every aspect of life since March.
“There will likely be sufficient supply in July of next year,” Lakin told members of the media. “I’m confident that all Utahns could start receiving the vaccine in July.”
Reports that the highly scrutinized COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective — Pfizer has reported 95% efficacy and Moderna 94.5% — have only heightened anticipation of their arrival, said Cox.
“This is really good news,” Lakin said.
Regardless of when COVID-19 vaccines become available, Lakin said it won’t mean face mask and social distancing recommendations will become obsolete.
“It doesn’t mean that the disease burden is eliminated,” he said. “Even though we’ll be vaccinating from December through July, we will still see a high rate of COVID-19 cases.”
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Lakin said, adding that probably 60% of all Utahns would need to be vaccinated to begin to see a difference.
Health department surveys have indicated that as many as 70% of Utahns are either very likely or are planning to get the vaccine when it becomes available.
“By the time we reach July, into this time next year, we should start to see a reduction in the disease burden ... but we still have to practice the same recommendations,” Lakin said.
The pending COVID-19 vaccines are intended only for people 18 and older at this point.
New COVID-19 cases reported on Wednesday by health district:
- Salt Lake County, 1,215
- Utah County, 509
- Davis County, 310
- Weber-Morgan, 259
- Southwest Utah, 231
- Bear River, 185
- Central Utah, 106
- Tooele County, 65
- TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 65
- Southeast Utah, 49
- Wasatch County, 38
- Summit County, 31
- San Juan County, 8