SALT LAKE CITY — COVID-19 vaccines will be available for Utahns 75 and older but there won’t be any more essential workers moved up in line once the second phase of distribution begins, likely in mid-February, the Utah Department of Health announced Monday.
Those decisions come as the state reported 1,716 new cases of the novel coronavirus and five additional deaths. The rolling seven-day averages for positive tests is 1,969 per day and for percent of positive laboratory tests, 24.4%.
Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 is now 1,219.
The state rolled out the first phase of vaccine distribution earlier in December, when hospitals began receiving doses for front-line health care workers. Monday, vaccinations began for long-term care facility residents and staff as well as for non-hospital and tribal health care workers.
Next up in the first phase are first responders along with teachers and school staff, who are expected to begin receiving vaccines in late January through a coordinated effort between school district administrators and local health departments.
Gov. Gary Herbert moved teachers to near the front of the line earlier this month in an attempt to stop what he described as the “ping-pong” effect of having to shift from in-person back to online learning as schools grapple with outbreaks.
Now the state wants to prioritize older Utahns, who “have the highest likelihood to suffer severe disease and not only to ensure those individuals are protected from the virus itself but also to ensure that we can start to relieve the burden on our hospitals,” health department spokesman Tom Hudachko said.
He said the initial age limit for the vaccines was set at 75 because of the projected number of doses Utah is set to receive and could be dropped to 65 later. There are about 156,000 Utahns 75 years old or older, and an estimated 220,000 between 65 and 74, Hudachko said.
“We’re trying to match the demand and the supply,” he said.
Hospitalization and death rates are much higher for older people. The hospitalization rate for Utahns 65-84 is more than three times higher than any other age group, and nearly five times higher for those over 85, the health department said.
Utahns older than 65 account for 77% of all coronavirus-related deaths in the state.
“As we move into Phase 2 of our vaccination program, it simply makes the most sense to vaccinate those who are at the highest risk for hospitalization and death first,” Herbert said in a statement. “We will continue to refine our plans and to move forward under the principle that those who stand to suffer the most should be vaccinated first.”
Dr. Todd Vento, an Intermountain Healthcare infectious disease physician, said vaccinating Utahns 75 and older will have a big impact.
“That’s really key,” Vento said. “If you think about it, which population is at most risk for severe illness, hospitalization and death? That group. Age is probably your greatest risk factor for a severe infection. And a severe infection translates into more hospitalizations and translates into more deaths.”
He said it will probably take months, but the move should lower hospitalization rates. Vaccinating both front-line hospital workers and older Utahns who are most likely to end up in their care is a “win-win situation. We have people to take care of patients and we have fewer patients to take care of in the hospitals.”
Yet to be decided is what other groups will be vaccinated as part of the second phase, but the health department said there will likely be “prioritization by additional age groups, residents with certain underlying medical conditions and certain residents who live in congregate settings,” such as prisons or homeless shelters.
Utah’s COVID-19 Unified Command group adopted recommendations from the health department to prioritize Utahns 75 and older for the vaccine while at the same time deciding no one else will be added to the list based on their employment.
“Focusing on age will do more to reduce infections and alleviate hospitalizations than any other category of individuals as we continue to administer vaccinations,” said Gov.-elect Spencer Cox. “I’m very supportive of this change and know it will save lives.”
While it’s up to each state to determine who gets vaccinated when, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed a number of workers besides school personnel and first responders as essential, including mail carriers, grocery store clerks, bus drivers and those involved in food production.
But Hudachko said “at a point it becomes difficult to categorize certain industries as being essential and other industries as not being essential. Part of this is moving forward, making sure that we relieve the burden but also making sure there’s a simple way to approach this.”
He said it could be July before the state enters the third phase of vaccinations, when doses should be available to everyone.
During the start of the second phase of vaccinations, many residents will be inoculated at local health department clinics and only later will vaccines be available through pharmacies and primary care providers. Details about the COVID-19 vaccine and the state’s distribution plan can be found at coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine.
Monday morning, the first vaccines were administered at Tooele’s Mountain West Medical Center, starting with the hospital’s chief of staff, Dr. Megan Shutts-Karjola. The hospital received 500 doses of the Moderna vaccine, enough for the entire staff and older volunteers, marketing director and public information officer Becky Trigg said.
“We’re just very thrilled. We’re going to be vaccinating our staff through the week,” including New Year’s Day, Trigg said. She said the hospital’s volunteers are mostly retirees over 65 who have had to stay away because of the pandemic since March and are “so anxious to get back and help us.”
Like many rural hospitals, the Tooele facility is not equipped with the extra-cold storage needed for the first vaccine approved, from Pfizer. Utah has administered 17,543 vaccines to date and 498 people are currently hospitalized with the deadly virus.
The deaths reported Monday are:
• A Salt Lake County woman older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
• A Utah County woman between 45 and 64, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Davis County woman between 45 and 64, long-term care facility resident.
• A Duchesne County man between 65 and 84, hospitalized at the time death.
• A Washington County woman older than 85, long-term care facility resident.