SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns 16 and older with certain medical conditions can now be vaccinated against COVID-19, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday, as 832 new cases of the virus and 11 additional deaths were reported in the state.
Also Thursday, the governor said Utahns no longer have to get vaccinated in their home counties but will have to return to where their first dose was administered for their booster shots. He urged Utahns to keep the appointments they make so no doses go unused.
“There is an end in sight,” the governor promised during his weekly virtual news conference on the state’s battle against the coronavirus. That will come for Utahns individually once they get vaccinated, he said, while collectively, it will be when there are enough doses for all adults in the state who want the shots to get them.
Cox had said that could be the end of May, but Thursday he updated that goal to as soon as the end of April.
“It is important not to give up right now, when we are so close,” the governor said, adding that he worries Utahns may be discouraged from getting vaccinated and following public health guidelines if they hear “nothing’s going to change. I don’t want people to hear that we’re not going to get back to normal.”
Trying to focus on positives in pandemic news
He said his administration is trying to send Utahns “a message of optimism.”
Asked about balancing his promise with concerns about new, potentially deadlier COVID-19 variants spreading across the United States and the possibility someone can still transmit the virus even after being vaccinated, Cox acknowledged he’s struggled “significantly” with that question.
But he said past predictions about the pandemic proved wrong, and “there’s all this good news.”
That includes an increased supply of vaccines coming at the same time cases are falling. People are getting vaccines at the Mountain America Exposition Center in Sandy, once hours away from becoming a triage center for COVID-19 patients as hospitals reached capacity.
“We are underselling the positivity of what’s happening out there,” the governor said, adding that if the situation changes, the state can shift its response, but for now Utahns need hope.
“It’s something I’m very passionate about,” he said, holding his mask up. “I’m telling you, I’m not going to be wearing this on the 4th of July. And I’m going to be in a parade somewhere. ... We’re going to put these in the fireworks and blow them up or burn them.”
Still, Cox, who helped lead the state’s initial coronavirus response as lieutenant governor, said there are instances where actions should have been taken sooner.
An earlier statewide order requiring masks to be worn “could have helped and maybe saved some live,” he said. His predecessor, former Gov. Gary Herbert, issued the mask mandate in November.
Earlier this week, Cox set a threshold for lifting the state’s mask mandate in counties with low transmission rates, having enough vaccine for just over 1.6 million Utahns, about 70% of the adult population. Currently, the state has administered 660,000 doses of vaccine.
He said the role of Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, “is to assess risks and be cautious.”
Dunn said at the news conference she wanted “to echo the governor’s enthusiasm. We are headed in the right direction. We need to continue doing what we know works with physical distancing, mask wearing, avoiding large gatherings and most importantly, getting the vaccine when it’s your turn to get it.”
Vaccines becoming more readily available
Vaccines are being administered on the honor system, “going for speed over accuracy,” Cox said.
“We’re not going to require a doctor’s note to do this,” he said, adding he was “pleading” with Utahns not to jump ahead in line because vaccines are coming. “You can look yourself in the mirror, you can sleep well at night by knowing you didn’t cheat the system, that you were willing to give it to those who needed it the most.”
The governor pointed out Nomi Health, an Orem-based health care company with a state contract, has more than 5,000 appointment slots available at sites in Utah County, including movie theaters. They can be scheduled through getmyshot.utah.gov, Cox said.
Appointments are also available through Utah’s 13 local health departments as well as at federally designated pharmacies at some Smith’s, Walmart, Harmons, Walgreens, Dick’s, Albertsons, Dan’s, Maceys and Fresh Market locations.
As of Thursday, there has been a weekly increase of 96,000 doses, slightly down from last week due in part to vaccine shipment delays because of winter storms across the nation. More vaccines are coming, the governor said, as federal supplies increase and new vaccines are expected to be approved in the United States.
The Utah Department of Health reported 18,563 vaccine doses administered since Wednesday. The governor said a first dose has been given already to 29% of Utahns between 65 and 69, “which is just incredible news and exceeded our own expectations.”
Cox had planned to wait until March 1 to add Utahns over 65 and those with specified medical conditions to the state’s vaccine eligibility list. But he dropped the age limit from 70 and older a week ago and Thursday, moved up those with serious comorbidities identified by the state, about 240,000 residents.
The qualifying medical conditions includes Utahns with transplanted organs, HIV or otherwise immunocompromised, sickle cell, certain cancers, uncontrolled diabetes, severe obesity, stroke, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis and other neurologic conditions, and some kidney, heart, liver and respiratory diseases.
The governor said Utahns 16 to 18 with those conditions should make sure they get the Pfizer vaccine, the only one federally approved for that age group. He said a list of vaccination sites where that vaccine should be available is on the state’s COVID-19 website, coronavirus.utah.gov.
Utah’s front-line hospital workers began getting vaccinated in mid-December, and since then all health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staffs, K-12 teachers and school staffs, and those 65 and older have become eligible.
Cox once again referred to a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll that found 80% of Utahns believe the state’s vaccine distribution system is fair, calling it “some great news.” He said he feels good about prioritizing “age and risk factors over industry associations and different jobs. It doesn’t mean those aren’t important.”
The governor said he expects the biggest issue surrounding vaccines for Utahns won’t be supply but lingering hesitancy to get the shots since “in just a few weeks, we’re going to have more vaccine than we know what do to with.”
A plan will be rolled out next week to help show underserved communities the vaccine is safe, Cox said. That will include working with organizations like churches so people can get the shots in a place they trust as well as debuting a new media campaign.
Daily numbers for Thursday
The rolling seven-day average for positive tests in Utah is now 723 per day as 369,433 have now contracted the virus since the pandemic began last year.
The state reported 8,582 Utahns were tested for the virus, and 21,176 more tests conducted in the past day. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity when all tests are counted is 12.4%, and 5.7% when multiple tests by an individual within 90 days are excluded.
There are 221 Utahns hospitalized with COVID-19, and the state’s death toll has reached 1,890 with the 11 new deaths reported Thursday, including four that occurred before Feb. 1.
• A Tooele County woman, between 45 and 64, not hospitalized at time of death.
• A Salt Lake County man, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Davis County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Salt Lake County man, between 25 and 44, not hospitalized at time of death.
• A Tooele County woman, older than 85, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Utah County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
• A Utah County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
• A Weber County woman, between 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
• A Davis County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
• A Weber County man, between 45 and 64, not hospitalized at time of death.
• A Utah County woman, between 65 and 84, long-term care facility resident.