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Steve Griffin, Deseret News, File

Vaccine rollout roller coaster: How will the state fix future problems?

By Tania Dean, KSL TV | Posted - Feb. 19, 2021 at 12:23 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY – Getting the COVID-19 vaccine has been a struggle for many Utahns and so far, the rollout hasn't gone as smoothly as hoped. What plans are underway to improve that? The KSL Investigators sat down with Gov. Spencer Cox to get some answers.

"The truth is we're working to solve it, but we'll probably never solve it completely," said Cox. "At least for a long time."

You could say the vaccine rollout in Utah got off to a very rocky start.

"Well the first thing I found out was that they wouldn't answer a phone call," said Washington County resident Gary Zabriskie. "And the next thing I found out was they wouldn't pay any attention to their website."

Websites crashing, no appointments available, long lines and seniors waiting in the cold. While there's been a shortage of vaccines, there's been no shortage of problems.

"I was looking forward to it to be smooth because I thought, Utah – they do things better than other states," said Roberta Lovell, a Salt Lake County resident.

Even Cox admitted that when he first took office, Utah was falling way behind.

"I had been very frustrated by what I was seeing, and I sat down with the lieutenant governor and I said, 'We've got to make some big changes. Utah is not going to be 39th in the country for delivering vaccines,'" said Cox.

So, what did he do about it? Cox said he threw money at the problem and offered local health departments anything they needed to help with staffing, technology and funding.

"I don't care about the budget. I don't care about the legislative session. I care about saving lives, keeping our hospitals open and driving down this awful disease that we've seen," said Cox.

His plan didn't work perfectly. Local municipalities still had hiccups and there were multiple days where seniors waited in lines for hours.

However, in a matter of weeks, Utah jumped from 39th to fourth in the nation for vaccine distribution, falling only behind New Mexico, North Dakota and West Virginia. This week, Montana also jumped ahead, pushing Utah to fifth place.

Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt understands the frustrations from both sides.

Mike Leavitt, former Secretary of Health & Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, discusses the vaccine rollout.
Mike Leavitt, former Secretary of Health & Human Services in the George W. Bush administration, discusses the vaccine rollout. (Photo: KSL TV)

"I was one of those trying to get on the website the instant that it was available so that I could get an appointment," said Leavitt.

As the U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary in George W. Bush's administration, Leavitt prepared for national events like an anthrax attack or a bird flu pandemic. But he said COVID-19 is a whole new beast.

"If we could start all over again and do the last two months again would we be better at it? Absolutely. But we haven't done this for 50 years. No one who's been involved in it has actually done it. And we're dealing with a different situation than we ever have before," said Leavitt.

In less than two weeks, Utah is expecting a major influx of vaccines: a jump from 83,000 doses per week to at least 197,000. That's more than double the current rate, and the fear is scaling up could bring a repeat of what we saw in January — or worse.

"Do you feel like the infrastructure that's in place is going to be able to handle all these new vaccines?" KSL Investigator Mike Headrick asked Cox.

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks with KSL’s Mike Headrick about the state’s vaccine rollout.
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks with KSL’s Mike Headrick about the state’s vaccine rollout. (Photo: KSL TV)

"The infrastructure that's in place now will not be able to handle all the new vaccines, potentially as soon as three weeks from now," the governor replied.

To relieve the pressure, Cox said the state is working on a plan that moves beyond local health departments. The vaccine is already being distributed at Smith's and Walmart, but the governor said there are 12 partners total, and one might be right in your neighborhood.

"We're going to have some very high throughput sites that are doing thousands of these a day. Some of them will be parking lots where people can get into their car. Some of them will be stadiums and some of them will be movie theaters. Some of them will be testing sites that will be converted into vaccination sites," said Cox.

He also said local pharmacies and mobile clinics are part of the plan to reach people who are homebound.

All those plans will require a lot of volunteers. To pull the whole thing off, the state said it needs at least a thousand volunteers to help with traffic, data entry, security and administering the vaccines. So far, 4,500 have signed up.

"This is going to move very quickly, a lot faster than people anticipated," said Cox.

So when is it your turn? The governor announced Thursday that Utahns age 65 and older are eligible now. He said there are more than 400,000 residents in that category, but we could get through them in no time.

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"You can burn through that population in a couple weeks and then you're on to 60 and then you're on to 55 and again, best-case scenario, if the numbers hold, we believe that every adult in the state of Utah could have an opportunity to receive a vaccine by the end of May," he said.

That's ahead of the national schedule announced this week by the Biden administration, which pointed to the end of July.

During his monthly news conference Thursday morning, Cox said his experience so far with the Biden White House is that they tend to "underpromise and overdeliver. That's not a bad thing."

Cox said the state will revise its timeline if necessary, but added, "from all the information we're receiving, we're very confident of that May timeline."

It will be a huge undertaking and Cox admitted it won't be without more bumps and confusion. But while the system will likely never be perfect, he hopes people will be patient with the chaos.

"What I hope people know is that we're doing things for the right reasons even when we get it wrong and that our motives are pure," he said.

Utahns 65 and older who wish to sign up for a shot can go to the state's COVID-19 website, coronavirus.utah.gov, for information.

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Tania Dean

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