SALT LAKE CITY — The next 45 to 60 days may end up being the ugliest days of the pandemic in Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday.

“But we’re on the verge of a breakthrough,” he said during his weekly COVID-19 update. The state put in its first order for vaccines on Thursday, saying if it gets approved, vaccines will be delivered to Utah Dec. 15.

Another 3,945 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths were reported by the Utah Department of Health on Thursday. To date, there have been 206,165 COVID-19 infections and 917 deaths in Utah; and 597 people are currently hospitalized throughout the state.

Not unexpectedly, transmission levels throughout the state are ramping up following the Thanksgiving holiday, Herbert said, adding that he hopes the impending increases aren’t “too dramatic.”

“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Dr. Angela Dunn, state epidemiologist. She said vaccines will help combat the spread of disease in Utah and may be available to the general public as early as April.

“Vaccines are important because they both protect the individual getting the vaccine and protect others from spreading it,” said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of community health and prevention at Intermountain Healthcare.

“Vaccines are our best tool, but are not our only tool,” she said, adding that the vaccine will work more quickly to stop spread of the novel coronavirus if the public also does what it can to keep infection rates low.

Hospital vaccination

University of Utah Hospital and several Intermountain Healthcare hospitals will get the vaccines first, with the arrival of the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine anticipated in the coming weeks. It won’t be distributed, however, until an emergency use authorization is issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration following a Dec. 10 review by its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks during a COVID-19 press briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Under direction of the state health department, University of Utah Health and Intermountain aim to inoculate front-line health care workers first, including some environmental services personnel — a group that has been hit hard by the virus.

Health care workers will have the choice to be vaccinated against COVID-19, which requires two doses within a span of 21 days.

The governor said there are no plans to mandate that Utahns must be vaccinated against COVID-19, but that he believes most Utahns will want to.

He urged continued adherence of the “commonsense things we know,” such as proper social distancing, hand hygiene and wearing masks, as well as “taking individual responsibility” to protect the community at large.

Dr. Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Utah, said Utahns shouldn’t be afraid of the new vaccines — or worry that scientific rigor was compromised because they were developed quickly. The human trials for the vaccines did not include teens or children but involved tens of thousands of participants.

The questions that remain will only be answered with time, he said.

“What we know so far is that both of these vaccines are as safe as most vaccines we have out there,” Pavia said, adding that 1 in 500,000 people can expect to experience mild side effects with the vaccines, whereas COVID-19 is killing 1 in every 150 people who contract it.

“The benefits of preventing disease will outweigh the risk of getting the virus,” he said.

The hospitals have worked out plans to contain and store the vaccines once they arrive, as they require careful handling, said Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer, chief of infection prevention with University of Utah Health. She said the first to receive it will be a group of front-line caregivers that has only gotten bigger since March.

“We are primed to vaccinate up to 500 to 750 personnel per day,” she said. Following front-line personnel and housekeeping, Mayer said the U. will vaccinate other providers who come in contact with patients, such as phlebotomists, respiratory therapists, as well as other nurses and doctors.

As vaccine production increases and they become more available, both institutions will be prepared to distribute and administer the vaccines rapidly, said Dr. Kristin Dascomb, medical director of infection prevention at Intermountain.

She anticipates vaccines reaching high-risk individuals in the public by early March, with broad distribution throughout the community slated for summer.

Pavia said that half of all Americans fall into the medically high-risk category, either by age or wellness level.

He said people will not be fully protected by the vaccine until one to two weeks after receiving a second dose. Only short-term data exists on immunity, though Pavia said “initial immune responses are better than people with natural or mild infection.”

He thinks the vaccine will bring on immunity that will last many months, at least, but only time will tell.

“Science is about what we can learn, not about what we think we know,” Pavia said.

Continued testing

Nearly 1.5 million people have been tested for the novel coronavirus in Utah, including an increase of 13,185 from Wednesday, according to the health department. Herbert said the state will continue ramping up testing in order to isolate asymptomatic virus spread and catch cases early.

“We really need to hold steady over the coming months,” Dunn said during the press conference. 

Salt Lake County mobile testers gather information from people as they wait in long lines to get tested for COVID-19 at the county’s testing site in the Maverik Center parking lot in West Valley City on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News
COVID Brief 1203 | Tyler Pratt

Dunn said the state has adopted a new quarantine policy that reduces the time from 14 to 10 days, or just seven if someone exposed to the virus tests negative at that point and shows no symptoms. 

It comes amid the reversal of a post-Thanksgiving trend that showed “some really encouraging numbers,” with daily case counts falling below 2,000 earlier this week, she said. In each of the past two days, that number has more or less doubled. 

“Transmission is still definitely widespread throughout the state,” Dunn said.

The governor said he wasn’t surprised to see the number of cases in Utah on the rise after the holiday. He urged Utahns to “stay strong” over the next 45 to 60 days, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned may be the toughest time yet for the nation.

“The good news for us is there’s help and hope on the way,” Herbert said.

He urged Utahns to limit upcoming holiday gatherings, acknowledging the difficulty of avoiding what he called “a recipe for increased infection” in a state that’s very family oriented. 

But he stopped short of calling for any mandatory restrictions on what Utahns do in their homes over the holiday season. Just before Thanksgiving, the governor lifted restrictions on gatherings that he said was a successful attempt to “shock the system” to drive home the seriousness of the rising cases.

“You cannot enforce what takes place in the four walls of somebody’s home. That’s an intrusion of government that I think most of us feel uncomfortable in making,” Herbert said, adding that Utahns shouldn’t “have to have a policeman come knock on your door and say, ‘Are members of your household the only ones you have here having dinner today?’”

Instead, he said, Utahns should take responsibility for stopping the spread of the virus to protect those around them, especially older and medically vulnerable family members and friends who could be infected by someone who has the virus but isn’t showing any symptoms.

“It’s easy to be discouraged. This pandemic has lasted a long time,” the governor said, promising that with the vaccines, “in the springtime, we’ll be on the road to recovery. So persevere, stay committed, stay strong Utah and we’ll get through this together.”

Gov. Gary Herbert speaks during a COVID-19 press briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The 11 new deaths reported Thursday include:

  • Carbon County man, 65-84, hospitalized
  • Salt Lake County man, over 85, hospitalized
  • Salt Lake County man, 65-84, not hospitalized
  • Salt Lake County man, 65-84, not hospitalized
  • Salt Lake County man, 65-84, hospitalized
  • Salt Lake County man, 65-84, hospitalized
  • Utah County man, 65-84, not hospitalized
  • Utah County man, 45-64, long-term care facility resident
  • Weber County man, over 85, long-term care facility resident
  • Washington County woman, 65-84, not hospitalized
  • Weber County woman, 45-64, long-term care facility resident