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With huge demand for vaccine overwhelming local systems, Utah governor asks for ‘continued patience’

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a COVID-19 news briefing at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at a COVID-19 news briefing at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.
Trent Nelson

SALT LAKE CITY — Health departments across the state have experienced higher than anticipated interest in the COVID-19 vaccine, and with that has come myriad logistical issues.

“I know everyone is anxious to get in line to get the vaccine,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said on Thursday. “We are trying to do everything possible to open it up more broadly.”

He asked for continued patience from all Utahns as the system gets ramped up.

Most locations won’t begin distribution of their allotment of COVID-19 vaccines until Monday, Cox said. While expansion of the state’s vaccination program is not without its shortfalls, Cox said the state is working to get the shots into the arms of people as quickly as possible.

“There is so much demand to get this vaccine that it did overwhelm some of their systems,” he said.

Some of the holdup has been because Utah’s 13 local health districts are directed to manage their own plan to distribute the available vaccinations and many of them aren’t fully equipped.

“Every health department is doing it in their own way,” Cox said.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks at a COVID-19 news briefing at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.
Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson speaks at a COVID-19 news briefing at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.
Trent Nelson

Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson is visiting all of the districts to help them make necessary changes. So far, she’s witnessed issues involving a lack of personnel, technology and funding.

One health district that remained unnamed was using its nursing staff to input data, Henderson said, adding that it just wasn’t the most efficient way. Registration at another, she said, required an email address, which many elderly people do not have.

As a result, many have been given carte blanche to get what they need to get things going.

“They’re not used to having unlimited resources,” Cox said. “Don’t wait, don’t ask. Do it and send us the bill.”

Administering vaccines

To date, the state has administered 133,202 doses of the vaccine, nearly double the 68,030 doses reported by the Utah Department of Health a week ago.

The majority of Utahns vaccinated so far are health care workers and people in long-term care facility settings, where transmission risk has been quite high. This week, though, the state began offering COVID-19 vaccines to K-12 teachers and school staff.

“Essential workers ... keep communities running and economies going,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease doctor with Intermountain Healthcare. Protecting these people first, he said, provides more confidence in the medical system and allows kids to get back to school.

Those 70 and older — who are eligible for the vaccine next week in Utah — are the portion of the population with the highest risk, Stenehjem said. “They are the most vulnerable” and have statistically been the “most likely to die from COVID-19.”

About 73% of the fatalities due to COVID-19 in Utah are among the age 70-plus population, Cox said.

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is administered at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.
The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is administered at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“That is why we are so focused on these two groups right now,” he said.

If that population is protected with immunity from the vaccine, it takes the pressure off hospitals to care for others, as well as decreases the number of people dying from COVID-19.

Stenehjem said that while the older population more commonly experiences severe symptoms, other age groups are seeing them, too.

“Just because children and young adults are less likely to have a severe outcome, it’s not that they never do,” the doctor said on Thursday. He said because there is more rampant disease throughout the state, more children are being admitted at hospitals in Utah.

In a recent University of Minnesota study identifying COVID-19-related trends in 22 states, Utah saw the largest increase, but not the largest number, in children being hospitalized because of COVID-19 and related illnesses. The study concluded that more resources need to be available for these young patients, initially thought to be unharmed by the virus.

There is no current plan in Utah to vaccinate children, as the safety and efficacy of the vaccines available on the market weren’t studied in the younger population.

The goal isn’t to achieve herd immunity right off the bat, Stenehjem said, but “getting to the people at high risk for poor outcomes, and provide a level of safety for them — that’s our first priority.

“Our goal right now is to protect those who are vulnerable.”

Increased testing

The health department reported 2,742 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, as well as 11 more deaths from the disease. In addition, 16,231 more people were tested since Wednesday, which is significantly more than the state has previously been reaching.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said ramped up manufacturing and widespread availability of a new rapid antigen test has made it possible to test more people — a goal of the Utah health officials since early in the pandemic.

“We have flooded 33 communities with rapid testing,” she said during the governor’s weekly briefing on COVID-19, adding that these are communities that were experiencing high case numbers or limited testing capacities. “It helps to identify cases more quickly and slow the spread.”

Stacey Dahlquist collects saliva for COVID-19 testing through the Wellness Bus and a University of Utah Health medical team at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.
Stacey Dahlquist collects saliva for COVID-19 testing through the Wellness Bus and a University of Utah Health medical team at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Increased testing is helping to decrease case numbers, Dunn said.

In addition, Utah’s seven-day average test positivity rate dropped from nearly 33% a week ago to 26% on Thursday. The average number of daily cases, too, are down about 400 from last week.

Stenehjem said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the post-holiday surge is over in Utah, as the numbers have seemed to stabilize in the last couple days, after higher numbers last week.

College students returning to campus, though, is concerning, he said.

“We really need that population to minimize large gatherings and always wear masks when they’re outside of their homes,” Stenehjem said. The responsibility to minimize community transmission “falls on them.”

The health department reports 559 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 throughout Utah, which is fewer than earlier this week, but still more than is ideal, as 96% of referral intensive care unit beds are being used.

The death toll in Utah now stands at 1,460.

The COVID-19 deaths reported on Thursday include:

  • A Davis County man between the age of 45 and 64 who was hospitalized at the time of his death.
  • A Kane County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
  • An Iron County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
  • A Utah County man older than 85 who was hospitalized.
  • A Utah County man between 65 and 84 who was a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Salt Lake County woman between 65 and 84 who was not hospitalized.
  • A Washington County woman between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
  • A Washington County man between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.
  • Two Weber County men between 65 and 84 who were hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County woman between 65 and 84 who was hospitalized.

New COVID-19 cases reported on Thursday by health district:

  • Salt Lake County, 869
  • Utah County, 705
  • Davis County, 293
  • Weber-Morgan, 223
  • Southwest Utah, 201
  • Bear River, 128
  • Central Utah, 86
  • Tooele County, 69
  • Summit County, 55
  • Wasatch County, 41
  • Southeast Utah, 19
  • San Juan County, 19
  • TriCounty (Uinta Basin), 15