SANDY – Thanks to a huge blunder over the weekend, Utah did not vaccinate nearly as many people as it could have Monday – one of several real-world consequences.
Over the weekend, word spread like wildfire that Utah had too many vaccines and eligibility was being opened up and anyone who wanted one to sign up, could. And 7,200 relatively young and healthy people believed they were doing the right thing when they signed up for appointments to get vaccinated.
Turns out, it was just a rumor compounded by a glitch on the state's website where people can set up an appointment. When the dust settled, it meant those 7,200 appointments had to be canceled. Some of those slots were for Monday and no one else rebooked them, said Gabe Moreno, a spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department.
"It is very unfortunate that we still have a lot of public health nurses out there that are ready to start providing those shots, but we don't have people to fill those out," Moreno said.
We asked Moreno whether a day of many empty chairs at vaccination sites when there is a huge demand of Utahns ready for their shots shows a broken system.
"That would be a question for the state," he responded. "We follow the state guideline details to vaccinate certain priority groups and we move to those (groups) based on state guidelines."
We reached out to Gov. Spencer J. Cox's office and asked if the number of unused appointments is a sign that the state should expand eligibility to more people.
"The answer is not yet," spokeswoman Jennifer Napier-Pearce said in a statement. "So far, only 41% of those 65-69-year-olds have received at least one dose. (Seventy)+ is 74% with at least one dose."
And while she didn't have the number available on Utahns age 16 and older with serious health conditions, she said "that's only been in effect for four days, so the percentage is likely low.
Low, like the number of filled chairs Monday inside the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy, a venue which usually is one of the busiest vaccination sites in Utah.
"We have less appointments that are full," described Lee Cherie Booth, the site's nursing supervisor for the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Asked if there was a lot of waste Monday, she said, "Yeah, today, potentially. But that's not reflective of what we normally are doing."
If there is one silver lining to the weekend blunder with the online registration website, it may very well be that wasted day is not adding up to wasted vaccines.
"If we don't use all of that vaccine we brought to the venue today, we can take it back to the fridge and it can stay in the fridge up to five days," she said.
Nicholas Rupp with the Salt Lake County Health Department further elaborated on what happens with unused doses.
"Once thawed, the Pfizer vaccine must be used within five days and Moderna within 30 days, so we have plenty of opportunity to use vaccine for any no-shows," he said in a statement. "The vaccine stays refrigerated until the dose recipient is on-site so waste is minimal to nonexistent. In the extremely rare case we have an extra dose in a vial at the end of the day, we vaccinate a staff member or volunteer who has not yet been vaccinated."
We also asked Rupp about a screenshot of the state's vaccination schedule taken at 11 a.m. Monday, showing lots of time slots available – some within minutes of the screen capture – going unfilled.
This photo was taken just after 11:AM today. Look at all those available appointments going unused. Each one of those time slots could be as many as 50, I've learned. Coming up on @KSL5TV News at 5PM and 6PM, why the waste and what happens to vaccine when appts aren't made? pic.twitter.com/mMOFxB3IkK— Matt Gephardt KSL (@KslMatt) March 1, 2021
"Each appointment slot can hold 30-50 people depending on venue, so when you see a slot available as in the screenshot, it could be 49 people booked with one available," he responded.
"We can be a little frustrated as a community that maybe we're one day behind on getting things back to the new normal," KSL's Matt Gephardt asked Booth back at the Expo Center. "But we're not necessarily frustrated because we're putting a bunch of vaccine in the toilet?"
"Right. We're not wasting vaccine at all," said Booth. "It might be one-half of a day or a day today that we didn't fill all of our appointments."