SALT LAKE CITY — All Utahns 50 and older, as well as those with some less severe medical conditions, will be able to start scheduling COVID-19 vaccination shots Monday, Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday, adding everyone should be eligible by April.

“This is a huge addition to eligibility,” the governor said during his weekly virtual coronavirus update, warning that putting another 700,000 Utahns on the list of who can get a vaccine may mean a wait of several weeks for an appointment.

0304 covid transmission utah map

Also Thursday, Cox announced Salt Lake, Davis, Cache, Grand, Sanpete and Wasatch counties will move from high to moderate risk levels for COVID-19 transmission, a state designation that permits large public gatherings without physical distancing but still requires masks.

“In moderate, there are no restrictions,” the governor said, adding that as long as masks are worn, seats at entertainment and sports venues, like the Hale Centre Theatre and Vivint Smart Home Arena, home of the Utah Jazz, can be filled. “We can open things up in a big, big way.”

Every county in the state could be at least in the moderate category in the next couple of weeks, Cox said. Eleven counties, including Utah, Summit and Tooele, are in the high transmission category. “We’re in a really, really, really great spot. I would hate to do something that sets us back.”

The shift comes as Cox faces action by the Utah Legislature that could lift the statewide mask mandate and set an end date to pandemic restrictions. Under a new statewide health order issued last week, that would come in low transmission counties eight weeks after there’s enough vaccine for 70% of adults.

Tom Hudachko, Utah Department of Health director of communications, left, Joe Dougherty, Utah Department of Public Safety director of public affairs, second from left, state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn, second from right, and Jon Pierpont, Gov. Spencer Cox’s chief of staff, right, listen to Cox speak during a weekly COVID-19 briefing at the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 4, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Utah governor eyeing threshold to end mask mandates across state

The governor said he hates fighting about the issue when the state is “so close to the end of this” as more and more of the state’s most vulnerable residents are getting vaccinated. He questioned whether action is necessary now that the state is “opening up quickly” by easing restrictions in some counties.

“Nobody likes the mask and nobody likes government telling us what to do. I agree with that. I wish we didn’t have to do this. I wish we never had to have any of these orders whatsoever,” Cox said. “But we also know that from an economic standpoint, the mask mandate is the least intrusive of all the mandates.”

Asked whether Utah lawmakers are feeling pressure because Texas and at least four other states are rolling back mask mandates, the governor said, “There’s no question that that’s the case. We always knew that would be the case, right?”

He suggested other states may be lifting requirements that masks be worn because “there are people who want to run for president and there are things you can do to get some attention. Look, every state has done things differently. That’s the cool thing about our country.”

Utah has lower death rates than Texas and other states, Cox said, “so I think we’re doing it the right way.”

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said public health officials around the country are concerned about the decision by Texas and other states to drop restrictions “seemingly too early” because the deadly virus does not respect geographic boundaries.

“We’re only as safe as our weakest state,” Dunn said. “So if there’s spread going on in Texas or another state it certainly puts Utahns at more risk.”

State Senate leaders hailed Cox’s announcement.

“That’s phenomenal,” Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said, adding that Utahns will be able to sit side by side at Hale Centre Theatre and Jazz games at 100% capacity so long as they wear masks. “Those industries that have been so hurt, those entertainment industries, they can now get some economic relief,”

Registered nurse Mary Daily prepares to administer the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine to a patient at a drive-thru vaccination clinic at Intermountain Healthcare’s The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray on Thursday, March 4, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Senate Minority Caucus Manager Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, agreed it’s “great news,” but urged Utahns to stay cautious. He said masking will continue to be important and getting vaccinated is “the key to really moving forward into where we need to be.” 

“It looks like we’ve turned a corner on COVID,” Davis said. “Hopefully we’re not going to get another spike.” 

Though some Republican lawmakers have tried to tweak some bills making their way through the Utah Legislature to immediately end the state’s mask requirement, Senate leaders aren’t keen on doing away with the mandate, at least not yet. 

Asked by a reporter if it’s time to end the mask mandate, Adams said he understands masks are a “hot topic,” but he pointed to the state’s better-than-expected revenues this year as evidence that Utah has struck the right balance for the economy and precautions for COVID-19. 

“I think eventually we’ll probably deal with masks, but right now my focus has been on lives and livelihoods,” Adams said. 

Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said not yet. 

“Look, we’re so close,” Vickers said. “It appears we’re on track to somewhere around the first of July to be able to do that. But in the same token we have to be cautious and we have to be careful and not allow something to derail that trend.” 

Vickers said he likes the “guidelines that the governor has talked about” and the guidelines laid out in the new version of HB294, a bill to spell out the “endgame” of Utah’s pandemic that cleared the Utah House on Wednesday. It still needs to be heard in the Senate. 

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The bill would declare most of Utah’s COVID-19 restrictions over either when the state hits a list of benchmarks or before July 1, whichever comes first. Except for mask mandates in K-12 schools, the bill would end restrictions if the state reaches a 14-day COVID-19 case rate less than 191 per 100,000 people, when the statewide seven-day average of COVID-19 ICU bed utilization is less than 15%, and when the state has been allocated 1.63 million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Though on Wednesday Adams questioned whether legislation would be necessary to end the pandemic, Vickers said Thursday the bill appears to be “intended to be a nudge to the executive branch to make sure that they keep in line with those projections.” 

Moving to the moderate transmission level means the counties’ seven-day average positivity rate for the virus dropped below 10% but is still at least 5.1%; the seven-day average case rate is below 325 people per 100,000 residents but still above 100; and while the statewide intensive care bed utilization is also down.

The new health order allows people in moderate transmission counties to sit side by side at movie theaters, sporting events, weddings, concerts and other entertainment as long as they wear masks and can attest to not having any COVID-19 symptoms or exposure. Event hosts must be able to contact attendees if someone tests positive.

At such events, masks can be removed to eat or drink, but social distancing must be maintained from separate parties during that time. Bars in counties with moderate transmission levels no longer have to limit occupancy to 75%, and customers must only wear masks when they are within 6 feet of a separate party.

Medical assistant Tracey Wootton holds several syringes full of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru vaccination clinic at Intermountain Healthcare’s The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray on Thursday, March 4, 2021. Alaska has opened COVID-19 vaccines to everyone over 16 years old
Medical assistant Tracey Wootton holds several syringes full of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine at a drive-thru vaccination clinic at Intermountain Healthcare’s The Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Murray on Thursday, March 4, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The order also changed how the state determines transmission levels, now counting all tests for COVID-19 to calculate the percent of positive tests instead of excluding multiple tests taken by an individual over a 90-day period. Because the previous calculation yielded a higher percentage, the limits were adjusted.

Utah continues to step up vaccine distribution, hiring four new contractors Wednesday to run mobile and mass vaccination sites as supplies continue to increase. Shots are available through local health districts and federally selected pharmacies, as well as Intermountain Health Care, University of Utah Health and Nomi Health.

Cox said the first 23,000 doses of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine started being administered in Utah on Monday. The Biden administration told governors earlier this week to expect a big jump in their allotments of the new vaccine, as well as the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

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The state’s vaccine eligibility list now includes those with specified medical conditions, along with Utahns 65 and older, health care workers, first responders, long-term care facility residents and staff and K-12 teachers and school staff.

The eligible medical conditions added starting Monday are obesity with a body mass index of now 30 or higher, chronic kidney disease and Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Monday is also when the age limit will drop to those 50 and older.

The Summit County Health Department said Thursday some 6,300 people 40 to 64 had previously signed up through a local preregistration system, before priority groups were established by the state. Dr. Rich Bullough, the department’s director, said those individuals will receive assistance booking their appointments, but going forward, the state requirements will be followed.

Utah sees a dozen more deaths from disease

Thursday, the Utah Department of Health reported 611 new cases of COVID-19 in the state and 12 additional deaths.

The number of vaccine doses administered is now at 785,523, a daily increase of 25,990 doses.

The rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 558 per day, and 7,286 more people have been tested with an additional 18,363 tests conducted since Wednesday. The rolling seven-day average for percent positivity is 4.8% when all tests are counted, and 10% when multiple tests by individuals are excluded.

There are 203 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Utah.

The state’s death toll has reached 1,965 with the latest deaths reported that include seven that occurred before Feb. 11. Also, two deaths previously reported have been removed from the total. The deaths reported Thursday are:

  • A Box Elder County man, between the ages of 65 and 84, hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Davis County man, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Salt Lake County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Salt Lake County woman, older than 85, not hospitalized at time of death.
  • A Utah County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • Two Utah County men, older than 85, both not hospitalized.
  • Two Utah County men, older than 85, long-term care facility residents.
  • A Weber County man, 65-84, hospitalized.
  • A Weber County woman, older than 85, long-term care facility resident.
  • A Weber County woman, 65-84, hospitalized.

Contributing: Katie McKellar