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Biden’s new COVID-19 battle plan already being fought in Utah

President also extends transportation mask mandate

Travelers move through the security checkpoint at Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021.
Travelers move through the security checkpoint at Salt Lake City International Airport on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. For Utahns, much of President Joe Biden’s new plan to battle the omicron COVID-19 variant likely will sound familiar.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For Utahns, much of President Joe Biden’s new plan to battle COVID-19 variants as the omicron variant of the virus continues to surface in the United States likely will sound familiar.

“A lot of those things, we were already doing,” Utah Department of Health spokesman Tom Hudachko said, including holding clinics where families can get vaccinated against the coronavirus together, promoting booster shots for all adults and offering free testing.

Biden’s focus on increasing vaccinations and testing included calling for hundreds of additional family vaccination sites nationwide, a new push to reach the nation’s 100 million adults who have not gotten a booster shot and insurance reimbursement for at-home tests.

The president also tightened the deadline for international travelers to be tested for COVID-19 to within one day of their arrival in the United States, and extended the mask mandate on planes, trains and public transportation through mid-March.

It’s not clear yet whether the plan pitched by Biden as a way to “unite the nation in a common purpose to fight this virus, to protect one another and to protect our economic recovery” means more COVID-19 resources will be coming to Utah.

“It’s probably too early to tell,” Hudachko said, adding that new federal help would be welcomed, such as more at-home testing kits. He said the state is currently able to offer a limited supply of the at-home kits to rural and homebound Utahns.

The White House’s ramped up efforts are “further emphasis on putting additional resources into the things that we know work. Vaccination and testing right now are a key part of the response. We’ve certainly been focusing on that as a state,” Hudachko said.

The effect on Utahns of what is an “affirmation that we’re trying to implement the right things here to control the outbreak” remains to be seen, he said, although it’s “certainly possible the plan will result in more vaccinations and tests.

Currently, just under 56% of all Utahns — and just over 60% of those 5 and older who are eligible to be vaccinated — have gotten the initial two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single dose of Johnson & Johnson.

Although more than 1.8 million Utahns are now fully vaccinated, less than 427,000 have gotten booster shots, made available to everyone 18 and older in the state by Gov. Spencer Cox before federal authorities revised their recommendations.

At the same time, Utah has recently been among the nation’s hot spots for the virus and continues to see high transmission rates that are helping to keep hospital beds filled to capacity, especially in intensive care units.

The state’s largest local health department, in Salt Lake County, doesn’t “anticipate changes in demand or a need for additional assistance” with its vaccination clinics, Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp said.

“We offer clinics at area schools and anyone is welcome, regardless of being a member of that school community,” he said, adding that all the clinics he’s aware of in the state offer both initial vaccinations and boosters to all ages.

Rupp said “the president’s plan aligns with our existing protocols for encouraging boosters and continuing to ensure under-resourced communities have access to the vaccine, as well as emphasizing the continued importance of testing.”

The extension of the nation’s mask mandate on airplanes, trains and public transportation to mid-March follows an earlier decision to move the expiration date to January. The requirement has sparked sometimes violent reactions from passengers around the country.

Keeping the mandate in place longer has the backing of the Salt Lake City government agency that manages the Salt Lake City International Airport, spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said.

“The SLC Department of Airports supports the mask requirement extension for the continued safety of the traveling public, which is made using the most current scientific evidence available,” Volmer said.

“In general, passengers have been compliant and understand the importance of wearing a mask,” she said.

“The airport remains committed to protecting passengers and employees and will continue to promote health and safety through enhanced cleaning efforts, maintaining plexiglass shields in key locations and providing hand sanitizer stations,” Volmer said.

Utah Transit Authority spokesman Carl Arky said the additional extension through the winter had been anticipated.

Most passengers are complying with the mask requirement and the agency is “doing the best we can with the regulations and the marching orders we receive” from federal authorities, he said.

“It’s been challenging to enforce. There’s no secret about that,” Arky said, adding, “it’s simply not feasible to have enough officers or train hosts making sure it’s 100% compliance. To a large degree, we have to rely upon our riders.”

Bus drivers have the most interaction with passengers about the mandate, he said, and “have to sometimes diffuse situations or dial down the tension.” Bus drivers have masks to hand out, but riders who refuse to wear them are still allowed to board, Arky said.