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SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced more earlier-than-expected vaccine eligibility Thursday, he remained confidently optimistic that a return to normalcy is coming in the summer.
Gesturing to his mask, Cox strongly declared that its days are numbered.
"I'm telling you, I'm not going to be wearing this (mask) on the Fourth of July. I'm going to be in a parade somewhere," Cox said at a news conference Thursday morning. "If I'm wrong, I'll come here and admit that I'm wrong, and we're going to do something different."
Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn remained more pragmatic. She said normalcy by the summer is "certainly possible" but will take an effort from everyone in the state to continue wearing masks, socially distancing, limiting gatherings, and practicing all the other public health measures that state officials have been preaching for the last year.
In the news conference where Cox, always an enthusiastic optimist, got passionate about Utah's current COVID-19 situation, the governor announced that state residents age 16 and older who have certain comorbidities are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, several days earlier than expected. That population accounts for about 240,000 Utahns, the governor said.
Previously, the eligibility date for Utahns with comorbidities was March 1, but Cox said these people are eligible effective immediately. The full list of comorbidities that make a person eligible for the vaccine is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine-distribution/#eligibility.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has only approved the Pfizer vaccine for people ages 16 and 17, Cox said. If people in that age group would like to get the vaccine, they need to schedule an appointment at a vaccination center that provides the Pfizer vaccine, the governor added. Not all vaccine clinics have the Pfizer vaccine, and a list of clinics that have it will be provided at coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine.
Cox said he's focused on getting shots into arms as quickly as possible, especially for those more vulnerable populations, rather than looking at the population of the state as a whole.
"We have committed to speeding up eligibility when possible," Cox said.
The governor also announced Thursday that people who want the vaccine no longer need to wait to make an appointment in their home county. If you can find an appointment available in another county, you are now able to make an appointment there. However, you must make your appointment for the second vaccine dose in the same county where you made your appointment for the first dose, Cox said.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox provided a COVID-19 pandemic update at a news conference on Thursday. Utah Department of Health state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn also spoke at the news conference. Watch the replay here.
Making up vaccination ground
At one point during Utah's COVID-19 fight, intensive care units were perhaps hours away from being completely overwhelmed, Cox said. State leaders nearly reached a point where they needed to set up a triage ICU at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy to handle the huge amount of patients suffering from the disease, he said.
But that didn't happen. Now instead of a triage ICU, the expo center is being used to administer vaccines.
"We are underselling the positivity of what's happening out there," Cox said.
About 70% of Utahns age 70 and older have now been vaccinated, according to Cox. Some Utah counties have vaccinated closer to 80% of that population in their areas, he added.
Additionally, about 29% of the 65-69 age group now has at least one dose, Cox said. Eligibility opened up for that population last Thursday and vaccinations of those people are expected to continue for several weeks.
Still, a Wall Street Journal analysis indicates Utah has vaccinated just 11.4% of its overall population with at least one dose — the lowest of any state.
Cox said he hates the way the newspaper calculated that statistic because it doesn't account for Utah's large population of kids that aren't eligible for vaccines. Census data shows about 29% of Utah's population is under 18, the largest percentage in the nation.
"We can't change that formula," Cox said. "All we can do is get the vaccines in arms that come to us, and that's what we're doing."
The disproportionate amount of children in Utah also affects how many vaccines the federal government allocates to Utah, Cox said. Inclement weather last week prevented a shipment of 36,000 Moderna vaccines from arriving in Utah, which set the state back slightly, as well, the governor added. But those doses have now arrived in the state and Utah is making up the ground, he said.
Cox said he would rather have a large percentage of people aged 70 and over vaccinated than a smaller percentage of the overall Utah population, because a majority of COVID-19 deaths have been Utahns over 70.
"This is where Utah is again succeeding in incredible ways," Cox said. "That's where our focus is."
Next week, the state will release a plan for vaccinating more members of traditionally underserved populations, such as Hispanics and Latinos and Pacific Islanders, which have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, Cox said. The plan has already been put into practice, but details of how it works will be released to the public next week, he said.
Health department data shows that minority groups are being vaccinated at a much lower rate than white Utahns. White people are being vaccinated at a rate of nearly 14,000 vaccinations per 100,000 people and account for over 60% of the total vaccines administered in the state so far.
Hispanics and Latinos have been vaccinated at a rate of just 4,720 per 100,000 people, and the rate for native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders is just under 3,600 per 100,000 people.
For about one-third of the vaccines administered, the race of the person receiving the dose is unknown, according to the health department's website, so it's possible that data isn't a completely accurate representation of which ethnicities are being vaccinated. Even so, the state has plans to work with community partners to get the vaccine into those underserved communities, Cox said.
State leaders will be working with churches and other community partners to achieve that and to decrease the vaccine hesitancy in those communities, Cox said. Health officials will be working to spread the word that the vaccines are safe and effective to people who still have reservations.
Cox said that instead of focusing on how many people aren't getting vaccinated, the state has shifted to an "abundance mindset" in preparation for the much larger amounts of vaccine doses expected to be allocated to the state in the coming weeks and months.
"In a few weeks we'll have more vaccine than we know what to do with," the governor joked. "We know what to do with it. ... Starting in April and May, our biggest concern is going to be vaccine hesitancy — like how do we convince people to get this vaccine because we have so much of it. And that's really where our focus needs to be."
New COVID-19 cases
Thursday, Utah's number of COVID-19 cases increased by 832, with 11 more deaths and 18,563 more vaccinations reported, according to the Utah Department of Health. There are an estimated 18,561 active COVID-19 cases in Utah.
Four of the deaths occurred last month but were still being investigated by the state medical examiner's office, the health department said. The state also reported 18,563 more vaccinations as of Thursday.
The rolling seven-day average number of positive cases per day is now at 723, according to the health department. The positive test rate per day for that time period reported with the "people over people" method is now 12.4%. The positive test rate per day seven-day average calculated with the "test over test" method is now 5.7%.
There are 221 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Utah, including 87 in intensive care, state data shows. About 74% of all intensive care unit beds in Utah are occupied Thursday, including about 77% of ICU beds in the state's 16 referral hospitals. About 53% of non-ICU hospital beds are occupied in Utah, state data shows.
A total of 660,444 vaccines have been administered in the state, up from 641,881 Wednesday. Of those, 229,526 are second doses of the vaccine, state data shows.
Thursday's new numbers indicate a 0.2% increase in positive cases since Wednesday. Of the 2,189,176 people tested for COVID-19 in Utah so far, 16.9% have tested positive for the disease. The number of total tests conducted increased to 3,765,520 Thursday, up 21,176 from Wednesday. Of those, 8,582 were tests of people who had not previously been tested for COVID-19.
The 11 deaths reported Thursday were:
- A Davis County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized when she died
- A Davis County woman who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized when he died
- A Salt Lake County man who was between the ages of 25 and 44 and was not hospitalized when he died
- A Tooele County woman who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was not hospitalized when she died
- A Tooele County woman who was over the age of 85 and was hospitalized when she died
- A Utah County woman who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Utah County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Utah County man who was over the age of 85 and was a resident of a long-term care facility
- A Weber County woman who was between the ages of 65 and 84 and was hospitalized when she died
- A Weber County man who was between the ages of 45 and 64 and was not hospitalized when he died
Thursday's totals give Utah 369,433 total confirmed cases, with 14,597 total hospitalizations and 1,890 total deaths from the disease. A total of 348,982 Utah COVID-19 cases are now estimated to be recovered.
See more details about KSL.com's COVID-19 data and methodology by clicking this link.
More information about Utah's health guidance levels is available at coronavirus.utah.gov/utah-health-guidance-levels.
Information is from the Utah Department of Health and coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts. For more information on how the Utah Department of Health compiles and reports COVID-19 data, visit coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts and scroll down to the "Data Notes" section at the bottom of the page.