SALT LAKE CITY — With the Memorial Day holiday marking the unofficial start of a summer, which many hope also means a return to a more normal life after more than a year of battling COVID-19, the effort to vaccinate Utahns against the deadly virus is shifting away from mass vaccination sites.
Now, rather than asking the public to show up at an arena or another large site to get the shots, coronavirus vaccines are being made more widely available in doctor's offices, pharmacies and temporary walk-up clinics set up in businesses, churches, communities and soon, at summer festivals.
"We're kind of in a more long-term vaccination effort," Rich Lakin, Utah Department of Health immunization director, said of the mass vaccinations ending as demand for the coronavirus vaccine declines. "You've got lots of options to go get vaccinated."
Lakin said since mid-May, Utah has not needed to order new first doses of COVID-19 vaccine from the federal government and at least some of the state's population-based allotment likely will be donated to a federal pool for states that need more.
"It's what we anticipated. We knew at some point the demand was going to go down and we'd have too much vaccine for what the demand was," he said. "That's why some of the mass vaccination clinics are being phased down."
Utah has not yet reached its goal of vaccinating at least 70% of residents 16 and older, Lakin said. He said as of last Wednesday, just over 60% of Utahns 16 and older had received at least a first dose, and nearly 50% were fully vaccinated, meaning it's been two weeks or more since their final dose.
Vaccines are available to anyone 12 and older, but just 38% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated, compared to almost 41% of all Americans. Before the holiday weekend, the Biden administration announced that 50% of adults in the United States 18 and older are fully vaccinated.
Other states are in a similar situation as Utah when it comes to vaccine supplies exceeding current demand, Lakin said.
However, he said mass vaccination sites might need to be ramped up again this fall if booster shots become necessary. For now, though, most of the sites that accommodated the crowds initially clamoring for the vaccine in Utah will be shut down by the end of June.
Nomi Health, one of the contractors hired by the state to help administer COVID-19 vaccines, is wrapping up mass vaccination clinics at Megaplex movie theaters in Centerville, West Valley, South Jordan, Lehi and Vineyard. Some 112,000 vaccine doses have been administered at the sites since they opened in March.
"Those are winding down. We are not giving any more first dose shots there. We are just finishing the series with the second doses and we should be out of all those theaters by June 30 at the latest," said Dr. June Steely, medical director for Nomi Health.
Steely said the theaters "were very attractive to people who were very interested in getting the vaccination as soon as possible. Of course, they wanted convenience, but convenience wasn't their first priority. Getting the shot was. But now we're aiming at the people who are more likely to get it if it comes to them."
That's around a quarter of the population, she estimated. To reach them, Gov. Spencer Cox called last month for bringing the fight against COVID-19 "to the people" by allowing groups to request a free mobile vaccination clinic show up to give shots on site.
Steely said Nomi Health has mobile clinics scheduled into July and has already held many throughout the state, including at Ken's Lake south of Moab, a tomato farm in Mona, a number of junior and senior schools, and even at a park-and-ride lot in Tooele during a snowstorm.
"I think that people should be optimistic that we are reaching out to the folks who haven't been vaccinated yet, to make it convenient for them to get vaccinated," Steely said. "I wouldn't say they should be worried. I think they should be optimistic that people will take this opportunity."
Last week, the region's largest medical provider, Intermountain Healthcare, announced plans to close its mass vaccination clinics by mid-June, except for at a regional hospital in Idaho, and send patients to their primary care physicians or pharmacies for COVID-19 shots.
Intermountain Healthcare spokesman Jess Gomez said that's what patients want.
"Several national consumer surveys have found that many people who still haven't been vaccinated would be more inclined to do so if offered the vaccine during a visit with their doctor," Gomez said. "Intermountain is adjusting to consumer preferences."
The Salt Lake County Health Department's mass vaccination site at the Salt Palace, where nearly 70,000 doses have been administered, closed Sunday, although sites at both the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy and the Maverick Center in West Valley that have delivered more than 325,000 doses, remain open for now.
"There are so many more providers out there and I think the COVID vaccination is becoming normalized in a way, right, like the flu vaccine," Caroline Moreno, equitable access manager for the county's health department, said. But with dwindling numbers, she said it's time for a longer-term strategy.
"We're really transitioning out of the large clinics," Moreno said, closing them in phases so people can return to the same location for their second vaccine dose. She said the county's five regular health care clinics will also offer the coronavirus vaccine in addition to pop-up clinics with community partners.
"My guess is there are still a decent number of people out there, if they were just walking down the street and they ran into a clinic, then, 'Oh, OK, yeah, sounds great. I'll do it,'" Moreno said. "That's kind of why we're continuing to do these pop-ups and the outreach clinics. We want them to run into us."
Doctors at the Cope Family Clinic in Bountiful, including Rep. Ray Ward, have had COVID-19 vaccine for their patients for nearly a month. Ward, R-Bountiful, said the majority of the patients he sees are older and have gotten the vaccine, but there are still some who need a nudge from their own health care provider.
"We would really like to get to the point where this was just seen as another vaccine, same as all the others, absent all the extra divisive rhetoric that seems to have to surround this one," Ward said. "The mass vaccination sites were fantastic for about half the population, people who really cared about it a lot."
But not, he said, for those who were unable to navigate making an online appointment or even get to a mass vaccination site. They, along with patients who haven't seen getting the coronavirus vaccine as particularly important, are the ones Ward believes can still be persuaded.
"If the vaccine is there in the normal places where they get vaccine, which would be primary care clinics and pharmacies, then a lot more people would be willing to get the vaccine," he said. "I was very anxious to turn that corner."
Pharmacies, especially the big chains, have been offering COVID-19 shots for some time. Smaller, locally owned pharmacies like Jolley's Corner Pharmacy in Salt Lake City, often have the trust needed to help customers understand why they should be vaccinated, said pharmacist Trevor Jolley.
"When we're asked a question, we're always encouraging, even though there may be some hesitancy," Jolley said. "Being a small, independent pharmacy, there is a little bit more of a closer connection and easier conversation that can happen."