Utah can no longer stop government entities from mandating COVID-19 vaccinations now that Pfizer, one of the three vaccines available under an emergency use authorization, has been granted full approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
The FDA’s action Monday largely ends the prohibition put in place by the Utah Legislature last March, said Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, the sponsor of HB308 that had prevented public schools, hospitals and other government entities from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations available under emergency use authorizations.
“Essentially what happens is the vaccine will be treated like any other vaccine under state law,” Spendlove said. He said he’s been advised by legislative staff that the coronavirus vaccine can be required in K-12 schools and public higher education institutions, but personal, religious or medical exemptions must be allowed.
COVID-19 vaccines are currently available only to children who are at least 12 years old, although the age limit is expected to drop to 5 years old in the coming months. But the full approval given Monday to the Pfizer shots applies only to those 16 and older.
Spendlove said he believes government entities in Utah would be able to impose vaccine requirements for eating out or engaging in other activities, similar to mandates put in place in New York City and some other cities around the country.
Monday, New York City also announced that K-12 teachers and staff must be vaccinated against COVID-19, and the vaccine would be mandatory for members of the U.S. military under a plan from the Pentagon endorsed by President Joe Biden. Federal workers already must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing.
Gov. Spencer Cox has said Utahns won’t be forced to get vaccinated against the deadly virus, but may still face consequences if they skip the shots, citing stories of people who thought they didn’t need the vaccine until they or their loved ones caught COVID-19.
Less than half of all Utahns, 48.3%, are fully vaccinated, meaning it’s been two weeks or more since their final dose.
Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider, is not yet instituting a COVID-19 vaccine requirement, but it is “one of those things on the table, that we will continue to evaluate,” Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director for preventive medicine, told reporters during a virtual news conference Monday.
The full approval granted by the FDA “is one of the considerations that Intermountain has been looking at, along with what’s happening in the environment in terms of the spread of disease” and other factors, including community and legislative support, Sheffield said.
“I think we do have a very supportive Legislature. We’re just making sure we have people aligned and we’re not surprised by some objections that might be made,” she said, as Intermountain Healthcare weighs the benefits of a vaccine mandate versus “doing everything we can to encourage” the shots.
More than 75% of the employees of the nonprofit health care system established by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have already been fully vaccinated, the doctor said.
University of Utah Health has not announced whether a COVID-19 vaccine mandate is being considered.
The potential impacts of the FDA decision worry Spendlove.
“I don’t like it. I don’t know if it rises to the level of passing a new law to stop it,” the state lawmaker said. He said he will be watching to see how Utah officials react to their newfound authority before looking at additional restrictions that could be raised in a special legislative session.
“That’s still one of my big fears, if government tries to use this new authority to restrict people’s freedoms,” Spendlove said. He said universities and hospitals are examples of places where a vaccine mandate may be appropriate, since people could choose to go elsewhere if they didn’t want to comply.
Other possible actions are more troubling to him.
“I don’t think this is ever going to happen, but the extreme example would be police going door to door and saying you have to take a vaccine. Government has that power unless we restrict it,” Spendlove said, adding, “We’re in kind of uncertain times. I think we need to see how governments decide to use their authority.”
His advice to Utah officials?
“Tread lightly. When we’re talking about something that directly impacts people’s health, there’s a lot of concerns,” he said. “There are legitimate concerns about it, and I think we should recognize people’s legitimate concerns” about what they see as limits on their liberties.
Giving the Pfizer vaccine full approval for use in Americans 16 and older is “an added layer of comfort” that should reduce concerns about the vaccine, Spendlove said, but doesn’t eliminate them. He said he and his family are fully vaccinated, and he encourages others to do the same.
Full approval may make it easier for some Utahns to set aside the arguments they’ve heard made against the COVID-19 vaccines by opponents who see those that get the shots as “guinea pigs,” said Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.
“It’s that idea that vaccination is not just an individual choice. It is actually a marker of affiliation with a specific group, in this case, cultural and political groups,” Kim said. “This may give people cover now to go get vaccinated. There may be people who felt pressured.”
Just how large that group is remains to be seen.
“I don’t think it will be a huge amount of folks, unfortunately. But I do think it could sway some,” Kim said, especially those who have said they want to wait and see before submitting to the shots. “People who are hesitant, who are not flat out anti-vaxxers, are looking at this minutia.”
The Utah Department of Health said in a statement that the FDA approval “is another important milestone in the battle against COVID-19” and that it comes as a result of “a rigorous approval process to confirm the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.”
The state health department said the announcement “should provide confidence to anyone who may have hesitated to get the vaccine while it was under emergency use. We strongly encourage you to get vaccinated and help end the pandemic. We also strongly encourage health care providers who haven’t offered COVID-19 vaccines at their practice before now to take the necessary steps to enroll as vaccine providers as soon as possible.”
The recently announced plans to provide third doses of the vaccine would also likely come through an emergency use authorization.