SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday Utah could soon triple its vaccine supply and declared he’s “more optimistic now” about getting COVID-19 under control than at any time since the pandemic began nearly a year ago.

The Utah Department of Health reported an increase of 1,761 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and no deaths for the first time since last fall, although a department spokesman said later there was “a data transmission problem” and a number of deaths that was initially unclear would be added to Friday’s report.

During his weekly update, the governor said the state’s allotment of vaccine doses from the federal government — now about 33,000 a week — could “triple or more” in the coming months with the Biden administration’s purchase of additional doses and the anticipated approval of new vaccines.

That would allow Utah to “significantly increase” who’s eligible for the vaccine, Cox said, adding an announcement could come next week. He said the state is looking at lowering the current age requirement of 70 years old, along with as yet-to-be identified co-morbidities that could include heart disease, diabetes or other medical conditions.

Currently, vaccines are available only for front-line hospital and other health care workers, emergency services personnel, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff, teachers and school staffs as well as all Utahns over 70, including inmates and the homeless.

“If we can now start to get over 100,000 doses a week in March and April, that means we can go through those categories, significantly reduce the age limitations on getting the vaccine and protect lots of lives,” the governor said, adding that Utahns will likely be on the “honor system” when it comes to meeting medical qualifications.

Vaccine doses in Utah jumped by more than 73,000 since last week, Cox said, up from about 40,000 administered in the first week of January. He acknowledged some Utahns have been frustrated because supply has not kept up with demand, but he said his administration chose to “overwhelm the system” rather than let doses sit unused.

The governor said he’s “more optimistic now than I was even a week ago and more optimistic than I’ve been at any time during our response over the past year.” Cox, who took office at the start of the year, had helped lead the state’s battle against COVID-19 as lieutenant governor.

Report: Suicide, overdose rates lower

A new report released Thursday by the Utah Department of Health found that suicides and drug overdoses did not increase last year, despite what the governor described as “this narrative out there” that the virus has driven more Utahns to take their own lives.

“The good news is that that is not true,” Cox said. He said Utah is one of the only states where there has been a slight decrease in suicides over the past three years, while at the same time, the population has grown significantly.

“It shows again how resilient the response of Utahns has been to this. It shows people really are reaching out to their neighbors. People are reaching out to their friends. People are reaching out to strangers that they don’t know and finding ways to connect, to help people through this very difficult time,” he said.

But the governor said there are still Utahns who have died by suicide or a drug overdose “because of the pressures that they have faced economically or healthwise during this pandemic. This does not lessen in any way the tragedy that has occurred there.”

Nor does it mean the state should let up on efforts to prevent suicide and addictions that lead to death.

“The numbers in Utah are still far too high,” Cox said.

Utah Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, told reporters during his daily media availability that he’s personally aware of some suicides directly related to COVID-19 and business closures and that the data needs further analysis.

He said the bottom line, though, is that the rate is lower.

“Let’s celebrate the fact that we are going down, whether it’s COVID-related or not,” Adams said. He credited efforts by the Utah Legislature to keep the economy going during the pandemic with helping to keep the numbers down, but said more needs to be done to address mental health needs.

Senate Majority Whip Ann Milner, R-Ogden, said the pandemic has been particularly challenging for young people. She said lawmakers will also need to make some investments to ensure school children have the “social and emotional support that helps them engage in learning.”

The report cited preliminary data showing the number of suicide deaths did not increase in the first 39 weeks of 2020, the most current data available. The number of deaths by suicide in Utah is consistent with the past three years, while deaths from drug overdoses deaths is consistent with 2019, and lower than in 2018.

‘Projecting hope’

The governor said conversations with health experts, legislative leaders and others are underway about when mask mandates and other restrictions could be lifted.

“There will come a time when we reach that threshold,” he said, likely as indicators such as case counts fall and the state’s most vulnerable residents are vaccinated,

Cox said he wants to push back against the idea that “vaccines don’t change anything and you can’t change your behavior at all once you get your second dose and have that type of immunity. That’s a really terrible narrative that is out there” and is discouraging people from getting vaccinated.

“The truth is, that people who have received the vaccine can spend, and should spend, time together. That you should be able to hug your grandkids and those types of things once you get that,” he said, adding the state will work “to make sure we are projecting hope to people that there is an end to this, both individually and collectively.”

Health officials, however, say it’s still important to take precautions against the virus even after being vaccinated.

“There is still a lack of evidence in terms of does the vaccine prevent you from transmitting asymptomatically,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angele Dunn said. “We’re all very hopeful in the health and science world that the vaccine does prevent transmission of the disease, but it’s something time will tell us.”

The recommendation is that two weeks after a second vaccine dose, someone would not have to quarantine after being exposed to the virus. “But if you are around vulnerable populations that aren’t vaccinated, it’s important that you still take precautions so you’re not infecting those that could be at high risk for hospitalization or death.”

Intermountain Healthcare infectious diseases physician Dr. Eddie Stenehjem was more blunt.

“Getting the vaccine, even getting the second dose of the vaccine, that is not a free ticket to travel. That is not a free ticket to socialize with people outside of your immediate family. All of the public health messages that we’ve been giving in terms of masking, social distancing, minimizing your contacts, that’s all still in play,” he said.

Stenehjem said during an Intermountain virtual news conference that “just because you’ve gotten the second dose of vaccine doesn’t mean you can change anything from a public health standpoint.” He also said it’s not known if the vaccine prevents infections without symptoms that can be spread.

“Why is that a big deal? Well, if I go out and get infected asymptomatically, and I’m not wearing a mask and not minimizing my contact, I can go and I can spread that to high-risk people who haven’t had the vaccine and they can get severely ill and potentially have very bad outcomes.”

Over 2 million COVID-19 tests in Utah

There have been 342,445 coronavirus cases in Utah since last March, including the 1,761 new cases reported Thursday.the health department. So far, a total of 267,027 vaccine doses have been administered in the state, an increase of 16,579 since Wednesday.

Utah has now topped the 2 million mark for COVID-19 tests, after another 10,917 people were tested since Wednesday. The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 1,710 per day, and 18.26% for percent of positive laboratory tests. Currently, 444 people are hospitalized with the virus.

Dunn said all of Utah’s key indicators are trending in the right direction.

In another news conference Thursday, Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, University of Utah Health chief of the division of infectious diseases, said the state’s rate of positive COVID-19 cases may be falling but it remains “outrageously high.”

Swaminathan said to control the spread of the deadly virus — already mutating to become even more contagious — the transmission rate should be at 5%, or ideally, 3%. Utah’s rate for positive tests peaked around 33% after the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

The current rate is “nowhere near good enough. We all need to continue to be extremely careful,” he said, adding mitigation measures such as wearing masks and social distancing have helped reduce the caseload. “Swaminathan also warned not enough is known about the spread of variants of the virus.