SALT LAKE CITY — Mass COVID-19 vaccination sites are set to begin operating in Utah in March and three months from now, every Utahn who wants protection against the virus should have an opportunity to receive their shots, health officials told state lawmakers Wednesday.

“We will reach all of the adult population, if 100% of them wanted it, by the end of May,” Utah Department of Health Executive Director Rich Saunders told members of the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday.

That’s as long as vaccine makers follow through with the increased doses promised.

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“So you’re promising the masks are coming off by May or June, and we can all just open up and start acting normally again? Is that what I heard?” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, asked during an update on COVID-19 focused on vaccinations.

Saunders chuckled before answering, “That’s not what I said,” and Kennedy interrupted with seemingly mock exasperation, explaining, “Oh, no.”

The executive director continued, “But I would tell you this: Man, we’ve got our sights on figuring out when that is. Because I’ll be the first to take this mask off and to have a celebration.”

That earned an “Amen,” from Kennedy, who later said he believes it’s “quite clear” that the virus “will always be with us,” just like measles and similar diseases. A doctor himself, Kennedy said he’d like have access to the vaccines at some point for his own patients.

The exchange came as 1,299 new COVID-19 cases and 17 additional deaths from the virus were reported in Utah Wednesday. There have been 442,476 vaccine doses administered in Utah to date, an increase of 16,778 since Tuesday.

Saunders said the state is counting on increased doses of the Pfizer and Moderna two-dose vaccines already approved for use in the United States as well as new vaccines, including from Johnson & Johnson, quickly becoming available from the federal government.

He said about 78% of the state’s 274,000 or so health care workers, first responders, K-12 teachers and staff have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, compared to some 43% of the estimated 241,000 Utahns 70 or older, the most recent group to become eligible.

Some 71% of long-term care facility residents and staff in Utah have received at least one dose of vaccine, a rate that’s among the highest in the nation, according to Dr. Michelle Hoffman, a newly named deputy director of the state health department.

Starting March 1, Utahns 65 or older as well as those with specified medical conditions will also be able to be vaccinated. Rich Lakin, the state health department’s immunization program manager, told the committee a number of partners are being brought in to run sites where at least 1,000 vaccinations can be given daily.

Those include Intermountain Healthcare, University of Utah Health and Brigham Young University, Lakin said. A new state contract with Nomi Health, the Orem-based company behind the “Test Utah” COVID-19 testing program, did not come up in the committee hearing.

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Gov. Spencer Cox and Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson are expected to issue a call Thursday for volunteers to help at the mass vaccination sites as well as with local health departments efforts, ranging from medical professionals to Utahns able to handle logistics and data entry, the committee was told.

Also, some Smith’s and Walmart pharmacies are set to begin offering no-cost vaccinations to Utahns who are eligible for the shots.

Appointments must be made online for the vaccinations starting Thursday at 39 of Smith’s 53 Utah pharmacies, and Friday at 18 of Walmart’s 59 pharmacies and the Sam’s Club pharmacy in Logan. Patients are asked to bring insurance information, but vaccinations are also available to the uninsured through a new federal program.

Lakin said that including children in the vaccination program around May has come up in discussions with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said so far, Utah has not been included in another federal initiative, setting up health centers for vaccinations starting next week in states including Colorado.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests in Utah is now 1,053 per day, according to the state health department.

Another 23,334 tests for the deadly virus have been conducted in Utah since Tuesday, and the number of people tested went up by 8,988. The rolling seven-day average for the percent of positive tests that include all tests taken is 7%, but that number rises to 15.3% when multiple tests for an individual over a 90-day period are excluded.

Currently, 323 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, pushing the total number of hospitalizations in the state since the start of the pandemic nearly a year ago to more than 14,000.

Utah’s death toll has now reached 1,765. The latest deaths are:

  • A Box Elder County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Box Elder County woman, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Cache County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • A Carbon County woman, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • Two Salt Lake County men, older than 85, one hospitalized and the other a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Salt Lake County man, 65-84, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Tooele County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • Two Utah County men, older than 85, one hospitalized and the other a long-term care facility resident.
  • A Utah County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Wasatch County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County man, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • A Weber County man, 65-84, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County man, 45-64, hospitalized.