SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly two dozen Utah legislative staffers were deemed “critical” workers and received early access to COVID-19 vaccinations before the 2021 legislative session started, according to a statement issued by House Speaker Brad Wilson’s chief of staff on Monday.

“A few days prior to the session, we had a conversation with the governor about having a certain number of key employees whose roles are integral to the fundamental operation of the legislative process vaccinated,” Abby Osborne, chief of staff for Wilson, said in a prepared statement.

Osborne issued the statement after receiving several questions from the Deseret News and other media about whether Wilson, other lawmakers or staff had been vaccinated.

Osborne said legislative staff worked with the Utah Department of Health for the distribution of the vaccine to 22 “essential legislative staffers who work across all departments in the Legislature and whose ability to perform their duties were deemed critical.”

“The staff members were not required to get the vaccine but were given the option and made a personal choice to get it,” she said.

Currently, only Utahns 70 and older are eligible to be vaccinated, in addition to health care workers, emergency services personnel, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff, teachers and school staff.

Osborne’s statement did not include names of which staffers received the vaccine — or how many may have been under the age of 70 — but she did say that “no lawmakers,” including Senate President Stuart Adams or Wilson, or their chiefs of staff, were offered a vaccine. 

Asked if all of the staffers were under the age of 70, Osborne said in a text message that “some may have been over the age of 70. I’m not sure of everyone’s age in all departments.”

“The necessary conditions working in the Legislature during our 45-day general session are not easily amenable to contingency plans and place our employees in positions of high vulnerability to exposure from COVID-19,” Osborne said in her statement.

“Several of our administrative and professional staff serve in positions, which not only require high amounts of direct interfacing with other members, interns, staff and the public but also require them to be physically present in the office while the Legislature is in session. Their jobs simply cannot be performed in a virtual setting.”

Osborne added: “Additionally, given the relatively few full-time staffers in the Legislature, we do not have replacement personnel who are qualified, capable, or possess the institutional knowledge necessary to properly carry out the duties assigned. Simply losing one of these essential employees to sickness or quarantine would inevitably grind the lawmaking process to a halt.”

Osborne said the “unique challenges these employees face and the critical function each plays in allowing the Legislature to conduct its business” during the session pushed legislative leadership to “respectfully request” their staff be prioritized.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Napier-Pearce, said in a statement that Cox “told legislative leadership that as a co-equal branch of government they could make whatever decisions they wanted regarding the vaccine, but the executive branch would not be prioritizing any staff or public officials.”

Napier-Pearce told the Deseret News in a text message she was aware of one staff member in Cox’s office — Pamela Atkinson, the governor’s senior adviser — who “has been (vaccinated) because she meets the age-based eligibility.”

“To my knowledge, no one else in the governor’s office, including the governor and (Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson), has been vaccinated,” Napier-Pearce said.

A Utah Senate spokeswoman said she wasn’t aware of “any senators under 70 who received the vaccine, unless they had other qualifying factors” such as being educators.

“Similar to U.S. Congress, a small number of staffers in the Legislature, including security, who don’t have anyone else that is crossed-trained to do their job, were offered a vaccine to help ensure the 45-day session would proceed without delay,” the spokeswoman said in a text message.

Daily rapid COVID-19 testing provided to lawmakers and staff have not detected any COVID-19 cases on Utah’s Capitol Hill for at least two weeks as of Monday, according to the Utah Department of Health. The last positive cases were detected Jan. 25 after the first week of the session, which began Jan. 19.

For the first weeks of the session, plexiglass dividers had been placed between lawmakers’ desks on the House floor. As of Monday, those dividers had been removed from most lawmakers’ desks, though lawmakers were still being asked to wear masks in the chamber.