S.L. County officials 'ready' to handle mass COVID-19 vaccinations despite limited supply

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson discusses plans to provide COVID-19 vaccines for people who live and work in the county according to the state’s guidelines during press conference at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.

(Scott G Winterton, KSL)



Estimated read time: 6-7 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said Friday that health officials have finalized a plan to handle mass COVID-19 vaccination inside Utah's most-populated county on the same day that Gov. Spencer Cox announced local health departments will be responsible for vaccinating residents within their districts.

However, it's still unclear when all Salt Lake County residents will be given access to the vaccine because the county's supply remains "limited" at the moment, county officials said.

"You all, public, will be receiving a vaccine, but what we can't give you today is a date," Wilson said. "We ask for your patience."

Since the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Utah last month, doses have been distributed to various groups. Health care providers were tasked with administering it to hospital workers, while pharmacy partners like Walgreens and CVS reached a deal with the federal government to handle vaccinations at places like long-term care facilities.

Pharmacies have already administered over 9,000 doses to staff and residents at long-term facilities across the state, Cox said. They planned to finish vaccination at all of the state's facilities by the end of January.

Local health departments, on the other hand, started vaccinating non-hospital health care workers, as well as emergency medical service workers and other first responders. A little over 80,000 vaccine doses have already been shipped to areas within the Salt Lake County Health Department district, according to Utah Department of Health data updated Friday.

It's still unclear how many of those doses have actually arrived and how many of those went to the county health department. Regardless, the state reported Friday that more than 30,000 people within Salt Lake County have received the vaccine and a little over 1,000 have received both required doses of it. About 41% of all statewide vaccinations to date have occurred within the county.

Salt Lake County Health Department director Gary Edwards said they have worked "quickly" to get any doses they've received into the arms of the people they're in charge of vaccinating.

"The doses that we have available to use are either in arms or are committed through next week," he said.

Later Friday morning, Cox announced an executive order that teachers and staff across the state will be eligible to receive the vaccine next week and every Utahn 70 years old and older will be eligible to receive the vaccine beginning Jan. 18. He added that school districts will handle vaccinations for teachers and staff, and local county health departments will be responsible for vaccinating residents within their districts.

The statewide population for those groups are close to about 300,000, according to the governor's estimates. It might take through the end of February before all within those groups receive vaccines, he said. The next group after that is every Utahn 65 or older.

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Prior to that announcement from the state, Edwards said the Salt Lake County Health Department "will be ready with the doses we have" to start vaccinating additional people they would be tasked with vaccinating.

It'll ultimately be up to the federal government to distribute vaccine doses to Utah and then the state to distribute vaccine doses to the county for residents to receive vaccines. Wilson said she was hopeful the process would speed up because both President-elect Joe Biden and Cox have committed to processes to speed up distribution throughout 2021.

"We are seeing additional vaccines coming and our assumption right now is that we will see quite a bit of doses moving in future months," Wilson said.

Dr. Audrey Stevenson, director of Salt Lake County Health Department's family division, said it appears drug manufacturers are already working to increase vaccine output, which will help the county vaccine rollout.

Stevenson added that they've seen about a 60% rate of eligible people for the vaccine receiving it but have heard it might increase within health care facilities to 80% in the near future.

"There's a number of reasons why somebody may have delayed getting it (outside of) that 60%," Stevenson said.

One of the reasons may be that a worker already contracted COVID-19 recently. Cox said that anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 90 days should not get the vaccine. He said he was working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to adjust that to six months after a positive test.

How to get a vaccine in Salt Lake County

The county launched a website where residents who are eligible can register to receive a vaccination. The website noted Friday that the county currently didn't have any available vaccine doses and would not schedule any appointments "for vaccine doses we do not have."

Emergency response workers and any eligible residents are urged to check back with the county on Wednesday to schedule Jan. 19-23 appointments.

Of course, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two shots. The county will not hold any doses for the second round; instead, both drug manufacturers hold a "matching" booster dose that's delivered to the county weeks later for people to receive their second shot on time, Stevenson said.

Stevenson said that the county's five school districts are working with Community Nursing Service to handle the vaccinations of teachers. Citing a low supply of vaccines, she estimated that it would take "several weeks" for all teachers who want a vaccine to get one.

COVID-19 still a problem in Salt Lake County

County officials are optimistic about the COVID-19 vaccine, but they also warned Friday that the coronavirus is still a serious problem and likely will continue to be one for a few more months.

The Salt Lake County Health Department reported Thursday that 1,527 new cases were found on Wednesday, which is the fourth-highest total the county has reported since the outbreak began back in March 2020. Another 1,209 cases were discovered on Thursday.

What's concerning, health officials said, is that Wednesday's figure was the highest since before Thanksgiving. The county's record is 1,651 cases set on Nov. 13.

County data shows that new cases weren't reported in one centralized area of the county. West Jordan reported 178 new cases, followed by Salt Lake City (176), West Valley City (167), Sandy (156) and Draper (100). South Jordan, Herriman, Millcreek, Riverton and Taylorsville rounded out the Top 10 with all five having at least 60 new cases on Wednesday.

"What we're starting to see now is, unfortunately, what we thought was going to happen as a result of gatherings during the holidays," Edwards said. "We knew that would end up resulting in increased cases. You, along with us, saw that happen (Wednesday) and we anticipate that will continue for the next number of days. What we're seeing now is Christmas week and next week we'll begin to see the New Year's week."

Wilson added that the recent rise in cases mixed with the vaccine rollout is why she believed it's "more important than ever" for residents to follow public health guidelines like wearing a mask and socially distancing while in public, as well as avoiding any gatherings if possible.

"While we see hope on the horizon and many are indeed receiving the support they need right now, this will take some time," she said. "We don't expect a decline (in COVID-19 cases) for a few months at least."

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