SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns at least 70 years old are the latest group in the state eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, but first must sign up for an appointment with their local health departments — a step that hasn’t been easy for many so far.
Some of the state’s 13 health districts are still finalizing plans for next week’s rollout to older Utahns, who follow front-line hospital and other health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff, emergency services personnel, first responders and school personnel in getting the vaccine.
Gov. Spencer Cox lowered the age threshold from 75 to 70 years old and delegated the responsibility for vaccinations to local health districts in an effort to speed up immunizations against the deadly virus. Cox recently old the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards that basing the program on geography “simplifies the process.”
States around the country are scrambling to get residents vaccinated, especially now that the Trump administration is urging them to include older Americans, experts said during a virtual news conference Thursday held by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
“We have to get some 600 million doses into the arms of Americans to control this pandemic. We’ve known for many months that this was going to be an enormous undertaking. Unfortunately, the rollout has not gone smoothly,” said Dr. Andy Pavia, chief of the University of Utah School of Medicine’s pediatric infectious diseases division.
A lot of the issues, he said, are a result of a lack of planning and resources. Pavia said there is a concern about the “mismanage between the number of people who are being told they are eligible and the amount of vaccine that’s being distributed and the resources to get that vaccine into people.”
The government, he said, needs to be honest about when the public can expect to receive the vaccine.
Adding some 180 million people nationwide to the eligibility list when there is only enough vaccine for about 40 million people by the end of the month is “a huge disconnect and that creates a lot of problems” for health officials who are already dealing with a COVID-19 surge.
Pavia said local health districts are “well-suited” to give the vaccines, but need more help to ensure access.
“What happened here in Utah was a pretty sudden pivot to putting all the responsibility on local health departments without the concomitant moving of resources or giving them time to do the advance planning,” he said.
Had Utah’s local health districts been better equipped with resources that he said would have to come from the federal government, such as scheduling systems to make appointments, the doctor said “this would have been exactly the right thing to do.”
Tens of thousands of Salt Lake County residents trying to book an appointment crashed the county health district’s website Wednesday morning. Within an hour, it was back up, and by midday all of the more than 25,000 appointments available through February were taken.
“We are very sorry for this problem,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said after earlier acknowledging the initial failure of the scheduling system. She said there are about 70,000 Salt Lake County residents 70 or older and appointments are limited by the number of vaccine doses “we have been told we can expect to receive.”
Problems related to the rollout in Salt Lake County also include cancellation notices for vaccination appointments apparently sent out in error, frustrating some residents who had spent hours attempting to get onto the county’s registration site.
The Wasatch County Health Department chose not to set up an online appointment system because it would have been inaccessible to many of the area’s 4,000 senior citizens, the department’s health promotion director, Jonelle Fitzgerald, said.
Instead, a call center has been set up to schedule appointments for a drive-thru vaccination clinic that begins Tuesday in the parking lot of Heber City’s Wasatch County Events Center. Fitzgerald said the county has brought in additional personnel to staff the hotline.
“We’re getting to people quickly. We’ve been able to make hundreds of appointments,” she said, noting the county is only getting 200 to 300 doses a week and still have other groups to vaccinate. “Everyone is doing the best we can.”
The Southeast Utah Health Department, which serves Carbon, Emery and Grand counties, started vaccinating Utahns 70 and older on Wednesday. The 150 appointments through Thursday were booked within two hours last weekend after 1,000 area residents were emailed about the trial run, department spokeswoman Brittney Garff said.
Garff said health officials there decided “we might as well start as soon as possible.”
There’s been confusion about whether older Utahns can be vaccinated by their doctors or at a pharmacy. The answer, at least for now, is no, Dr. Tamara Sheffield, Intermountain Healthcare Community Health and Prevention medical director, said.
“We’re really having problems with our pharmacies, our clinics, being inundated with phone calls from patients, who say, ‘I’m 70. It’s time for me to get my vaccine. Can I come in and get it?’” she said. “We need to let people know, your access point is the local health departments. Your doctors office is not going to be able to help you.”
Despite the differences between how the local health departments are handling vaccinating older Utahns, Sheffield said it makes more sense to have the local agencies in charge rather than the Utah Department of Health.
“The local health departments have to deal with the vaccine that they have in hand. We should not have a central place for signing up for the vaccine that would not know how much vaccine there is to give,” she said. “The worst thing in the world is to create appointments for people for vaccine that is not available.”
Utahns should check the websites of their local health district for vaccination information, Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said, and those who aren’t sure which of the state’s 13 local health districts they live in can go to the state’s coronavirus website, at coronavirus.utah.gov, to find out.
“I think the fact that phone lines are being overloaded and websites can’t handle the traffic is a very clear indication people know where to go. I think it’s an indication there’s far more demand than there is supply right now,” Hudachko said, adding that older Utahns need to be patient.
He said it took him two tries Wednesday over an hour and a half to get through to the Salt Lake County Health Department online appointment system to get his own father scheduled for a coronavirus vaccination, in mid-February.
Utah State Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said vaccinating older residents is a matter of life and death, since they account for more than three-quarters of the more than 1,400 Utahns who have lost their lives to the deadly virus.
“If I could have had my way, I’d have started it a couple weeks ago. But I’m thankful we’re starting next week. I’m grateful for that, and I hope the public understands the significance of the 70 and above getting the vaccine,” he said. “Our focus has been on saving lives and saving livelihoods. We can’t do anything more significant.”
Here’s information on vaccinations for Utahns 70 or older by health department:
Salt Lake County Health Department
Appointments are booked through February, but county residents are advised to check the website regularly in case more vaccine doses become available. There are some 40 county employees available to take phone calls from those who don’t have Internet access.
Utah County Health Department
801-851-HELP (4357), M-F 10 a.m.- 3 p.m.
Appointments could be made online starting Wednesday at 6 p.m. Residents are encouraged to sign up for text alerts to be notified when appointment slots are available by texting UCHEALTH to 888777. Right now, shots are only available at the department’s Provo offices, but a former ShopKo store in Spanish Fork is being converted into a mass vaccination center.
Davis County Health Department
Appointments can be made beginning at 8 a.m. Friday by going to the website above or by calling the number above for those without access to a compute. Three-quarters of the vaccine allocation will be set aside for those 70 and older at drive-thru vaccination clinics Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at the Legacy Events Center in Farmington. Some 3,000 residents are expected to get shots next week, but there are about 25,000 who are 70 or older, so vaccinations are expected to continue for many weeks.
Weber/Morgan Health Department (Weber and Morgan counties)
With some 15,000 residents 70 and older already notifying the department they want to be vaccinated, appointments for the 1,750 vaccine doses available next week went quickly. Residents are advised to keep checking the website in case there are cancellations. Otherwise, new appointment links will be posted weekly on Thursdays at 3 p.m.
Bear River Health Department (Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties)
435-792-6500 (voice mail)
A vaccination clinic to distribute about 300 doses at the Cache County Fairgrounds Event Center on Thursday has already filled up, but more appointments were expected to be available for next week with online registration starting Thursday at 6 p.m.
Southwest Utah Public Health Department (Beaver, Garfield, Iron, Kane and Washington counties)
The website, which crashed earlier this week, is expected to be up and running when appointments can be made on Monday morning. Vaccine clinics are being run in each county weekly.
Southeast Utah Health Department (Carbon, Grand and Emery counties)
Castle Dale 435-381-2252
About 300 vaccine doses have already been administered to residents 70 and older and appointments could be made online starting Wednesday. Residents can also call and be asked to be added to a list to be notified if additional doses become available.
Central Utah Public Health Department (Juab, Millard, Paiute, Sanpete, Sevier and Wayne counties)
Check website for phone numbers of eight offices.
Appointments can be made online but the department is already booked out several weeks, but residents can get on a waiting list by calling their area office.
Tooele County Health Department
Beginning Tuesday at 8 a.m., residents can call to make an appointment or should be able to schedule one online.
Summit County Health Department
Nearly 90% of the county’s 70-plus population has registered to be notified when appointments are available, according to the department. They will be given an opportunity next week to make an appointment, based on when they registered. However, the county is already booked through the next two weeks vaccinating other groups.
Wasatch County Health Department
Appointments can be made by calling the hotline phone number above but residents are being advised there are limited vaccine doses available and it may take a few tries to get scheduled.
Tri-County Health Department (Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties)
Residents 70 and older should call the newly established statewide coronavirus hotline above and provide contact information so the department can call them back to schedule an appointment, likely beginning the week of Jan. 25.
San Juan Public Health
Contributing: Katie McKellar