SALT LAKE CITY — All Utah adults will be able to be vaccinated against COVID-19 starting next Wednesday rather than waiting until April 1, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday.

The governor said during his monthly news conference on PBS Utah that the decision to open up eligibility early came during an evening meeting with the Utah Department of Health as well as the state’s local health departments.

The public health authorities sought the change, Cox said, because about 15% of vaccination appointments available next week had not yet been filled, and to assist efforts underway to reach remote areas of the state as well as some multicultural communities.

“We always want to keep demand above availability,” the governor said, urging Utahns to be patient. “This is a significant movement in timing. It also means there will not be vaccine available for everyone in the state next week. I want to be very clear about that. It may take a few weeks” to get an appointment.

Utahns who are not now eligible for COVID-19 shots were asked by Cox to wait until next Wednesday to begin scheduling appointments, with local health departments, pharmacies or other providers, including Intermountain Healthcare and Orem-based Nomi Heath, one of the contractors hired by the state.

“Vaccine shopping” was also discouraged by the governor, who said making multiple appointments could keep someone in need from getting a shot.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in Salt Lake City.
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during his monthly news conference at PBS Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 18, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
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Currently, vaccines are available for Utahns 50 and older and with a recently expanded list of specified medical conditions, as well as health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staffs, and K-12 teachers and school staffs.

Starting Wednesday, Utahns as young as 16 will join that list. But only the Pfizer vaccine can be given to those 16 or 17 years old, while the other two vaccines approved for use in the United States, from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are for adults 18 and older.

Although the governor said he’s “very pleased” with Utah’s vaccine rollout, especially since 81% of residents 70 and older have gotten immunized as well as what is believed to be a “significant” number of those with comorbidities, he noted: “We know we need to do better.”

April 10 end to mask mandate ‘not what we wanted’

A bill passed by the Utah Legislature sets an April 10 end to the state’s mask mandate and would lift other restrictions once the state receives 1.63 million vaccine doses, enough to inoculate 70% of the state, if case counts and hospitalization rates remain low.

A person prepares a COVID-19 vaccination at the Canyons School District’s final COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Mount Jordan Middle School in Sandy on Thursday, March 11, 2021. | Annie Barker, Deseret News

Cox has not signed the bill and initially said Thursday a veto is “still a possibility” before saying he would “lose the respect of the Legislature and that’s not how I operate,” if he rejected the negotiated date now. Pressed on what could cause him to veto the bill, the governor declined to elaborate.

“We are not playing with fire. We’re playing with the Legislature, which maybe there’s not a difference. I don’t know sometimes,” the governor said when asked if that is what he’s doing by not stopping the bill from becoming law. Cox had hoped to wait to lift the mask mandate until the 70% vaccine dose threshold was reached.

“I don’t know that there is much upside at all (to the bill). This is not what we wanted. I’ve been critical of it from the beginning. We had a timeline we set out. The Legislature disagreed with that. We negotiated. We got as many days as we could,” he said, given that a veto-proof majority of lawmakers wanted to lift the mask mandate immediately.

Should Utah’s case counts climb, as they are in other countries as new variants of the coronavirus are forcing lockdowns, Cox said lawmakers can be called back into session to reconsider the mask mandate. He also said he and other governors have been using emergency powers during the pandemic usually reserved for legislatures.

“This really is a legislative decision, he said, adding, “I get to act like a legislature when I declare an emergency. That’s very dangerous and it should be used very rarely. We’ve never had a situation in any of our lifetimes where we’ve had emergencies that have lasted this long, so it’s important to get the Legislature involved.”

The governor said his biggest concern now is getting Utahns vaccinated, not masks, and that he believes “lots of people, most people” will continue to wear them even after the mandate is lifted. Cox, 45, said he will continue to wear a mask until he is fully vaccinated but has not yet gotten a shot.

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When it’s his turn, the GOP governor said he’ll get vaccinated in public.

A recent PBS Newshour/NPR/Marist poll found that 30% of Americans — and 49% of Republican men — do not plan on getting vaccinated. It’s a breakdown that Cox said holds true for Utah.

“It’s very likely that Republican males are more hesitant than some others, so my message to them is, ‘Just do it, guys.’ Ironically, that’s the same group that’s probably most adamant that we need to get back to normal as soon as possible,” the governor said, adding there’s also vaccine hesitancy among his fellow rural Utahns.

Cox said he might not be able to change those minds, but “will be leaning heavily on our religious communities to get the message out there,” suggesting that vaccines could be administered in the future as part of church activities. Political organizations and others will also be involved in getting Utahns vaccinated, the governor said.

No deaths caused by COVID-19 vaccines in Utah

Later Thursday, the state health department and Office of the Medical Examiner issued a joint statement about recent news reports of deaths following vaccinations, saying the medical examiner’s office “has determined there have been no deaths caused by the COVID-19 vaccines to date in Utah.”

The statement called on the media “to wait for all the facts to be known prior to reporting information that could lead to undue diminished confidence in these life-saving vaccines,” describing them as “safe and effective. They are how we will end this pandemic.”

The statement said reports of serious side effects will continue to be investigated. “Public confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine is critical, and providing absolute transparency on the vaccine’s side effects is our goal.”

Latest coronavirus numbers

Thursday, 560 new COVID-19 cases were reported by the state health department and five additional deaths from the virus.

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There have been 1,080,039 coronavirus vaccine doses administered in the state, a daily increase of 25,312 shots. Just over 394,000 Utahns are fully vaccinated, however. It takes at least two weeks after a final vaccine dose to be fully vaccinated, and two of the vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, require two doses as much as 28 days apart.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 484 per day, and another 7,526 Utahns have taken 16,975 tests for the virus since Wednesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity is 4.2% when all test results are counted and 8.4% when multiple tests by an individual in the past 90 days are excluded.

There are now 189 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah, bringing the total hospitalizations in the state from the beginning of the pandemic to 15,223.

Utah’s death toll is now at 2,041 with the five new deaths reported Thursday and the removal of a previously reported death after further investigation. The latest deaths are:

  • Two Salt Lake County women, between the ages of 65 and 84, both hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Utah County woman, older than 85, hospitalized.
  • A Utah County woman, older than 85, not hospitalized.
  • A Wasatch County man, 45-64, hospitalized.
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