SALT LAKE CITY — The COVID-19 vaccine has arrived in Utah, with hospital health care workers now set to receive the first doses Tuesday at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.

Monday morning, after the first shipments to Utah were delivered to LDS Hospital and Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Intermountain Healthcare officials said it would take until Wednesday before any shots would be administered because of the time needed to schedule appointments and prepare staff.

But by Monday evening, Intermountain Healthcare issued a statement saying “thanks to progress in scheduling caregivers on Monday, the vaccine team was able to push that up and will begin vaccinations on Tuesday.” A virtual news conference has been scheduled for 2:15 p.m. Tuesday, after the vaccines have been given.

The Pfizer vaccine’s arrival in the Beehive State was hailed Monday, but doctors also warn that Utahns should not let their guard down.

“Today signals the beginning of the end of this pandemic here in Utah. We now have a new and effective tool to combat this pandemic,” Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Healthcare, told reporters Monday, at a news conference to announce the delivery.

Stenhjem said having a vaccine marks “a proud day for science and it’s a proud day for medicine.” But he cautions that Utahns will still need to continue safety measures to help stop the spread of the deadly virus, including wearing masks and social distancing,

The same day the vaccine arrived in Utah, the state reported 1,968 new coronavirus cases and seven new deaths. Utah’s death toll is now at 1,062 and nationwide, has exceeded 300,000.

Intermountain Healthcare workers unpack the COVID-19 vaccines they received Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo. | Intermountain Healthcare

While the vaccine offers “optimism and hope,” Stenhjem said the suffering is not over yet.

“More deaths will come,” he said, adding that “all lives have been impacted. Social circles have been disrupted, schools have been canceled, jobs have been lost, loved ones have become sick or have died, and the mental health struggles of getting through this pandemic that has lasted over nine months cannot be overstated.”

The vaccine is not expected to be available to the general public until next spring, although it could take longer.

“There’s no sugar-coating that we are still in the throes of a global pandemic that is affecting Utah very, very hard,” Stenhjem said, filling hospitals to capacity. “Our health care workers are tired and fatigued and continue to see these patients day in and day out.”

He repeated the plea already made by Gov. Gary Herbert and others for Utahns to avoid gathering with anyone outside their household over the upcoming holidays. An expected surge over Thanksgiving was “muted” by limiting such exposures, the doctor said.

Utah’s priorities for the vaccine are hospital health care workers, staff and patients at long-term care facilities, and then teachers. State health officials have recommended police, firefighters, correctional officers, tribal communities and those 65 or older follow.

Doctors expressed confidence the vaccine is safe.

“We’ve looked under the hood” of the vaccine, Stenhjem said, of himself and his colleagues. Even though there are still questions about the vaccine, including how long it will last, he has “absolutely no hesitation” about getting a shot as soon as possible.

At the front of the line are doctors, nurses and other medical personnel who treat COVID-19 patients, as well as workers who handle waste products, according to Dr. Kristin Dascomb, Intermountain Healthcare medical director of infection prevention for employee health.

Utah lags behind at least some other states in starting to administer the Pfizer vaccine that received emergency authorization on Friday from the federal Food and Drug Administration. Medical facilities around the country received their initial doses Monday.

It was Dascomb who said Monday morning the shots wouldn’t begin until Wednesday because time is needed to set up appointments and prepare the staff who’ll handle the vaccine, which must be stored at extra-cold temperatures and becomes unstable within about six hours of thawing for use.

She said Intermountain did not want to schedule health care workers to receive the vaccine before it had arrived.

“Given the fragility of this vaccine, we wanted to ensure it was available first, to make sure that we had it available on site and safe before we started inviting caregivers,” Dascomb said. “It would be very hard to have appointments already set up and not have had product delivered. So that was the reason for delaying that.”

She said those who receive the vaccine will be monitored for symptoms such as fevers, body aches and headaches. The hospital workers will get vaccinated at the end of their weekly shifts so they can recover at home from any adverse side effects.

Intermountain Healthcare is not making the vaccine mandatory, Dascomb said, but is anticipating that 70% of health care workers will get the shots as soon as they are available and even more will do so later. The Pfizer vaccine, likely the first of several, requires two doses, 21 days apart.

Utah Valley Hospital in Provo is pictured on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. | Yukai Peng, Deseret News

Asked about rumors that Utah political leaders would be prioritized to receive the vaccine, Dascob said, “at this time, we have no plans to give out vaccines to community members.” She said July is hopefully the latest that all Utahns would be able to be vaccinated.

Utah Valley Hospital, where Dascomb said the first doses will be administered Wednesday afternoon or evening, has received two boxes of the vaccine, each containing 975 doses. She said she believes a similar shipment arrived at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City.

By the end of the week, more than 23,000 doses are expected in Utah. Four Intermountain hospitals are anticipating shipments Monday or Tuesday, including Intermountain Medical Center in Murray and Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George in addition to Utah Valley and LDS hospitals.

The University of Utah Hospital is expecting its first doses to arrive Tuesday. It could take some time before the facility is ready to vaccinate the hospital’s workers, said Kathy Wilets, director of media relations at U. Health.

“It’s a very complicated process and despite all the planning that’s gone into it, we really won’t know until it gets here,” she said. “We believe it will be anywhere from several hours to a day until we can start vaccinating our teams, depending on when the vaccine arrives.”

The daily virus numbers

The state reported Monday an additional 5,621 people were tested, and the rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 2,598 per day, and 24.07% for percent of positive tests.

There are 572 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, bringing the total number of people hospitalized in the state to 9,486 since the start of the outbreak in March. More than 1.5 million people have been tested in Utah, and 235,872 were positive for the virus.

The COVID-19 deaths reported in Utah Monday are:

  • An Iron County man, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, between 65-84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Tooele County man, older than 85, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Utah County man, between 65-84, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Wasatch County man, between 45-64, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Washington County woman, between 45-64, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Washington County woman, between 65-84, not hospitalized at time of death.