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SALT LAKE CITY — Although COVID-19 vaccines have been put on the list of routine immunizations recommended for both children and adults by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health experts stress that doesn't mean the shots are now mandatory.
"The CDC can make recommendations all they want, but it's up to the states to make it a requirement," said Rich Lakin, immunizations director for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, adding that's not going to happen in Utah.
The only vaccine requirements set by the state are to attend school, Lakin said, and he's already determined there doesn't need to be any change in those requirements based on the decision last week by the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to include COVID-19 on the list of its recommended vaccinations.
"I don't think the public would want to have a COVID vaccine required for school entry," Lakin said.
A recent poll by the Deseret News and the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics found nearly 70% of Utahns aren't concerned about contracting COVID-19, even as another surge is predicted this winter. It's ultimately up to the Utah Legislature to update the state's required vaccinations for students.
Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes was one of 14 Republican state attorney generals who signed a letter to the CDC committee claiming "adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of childhood immunizations amounts to little more than a payout to big pharmaceutical companies at the expense of kids and parents."
Written on the letterhead of Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, the letter said that because states have "traditionally relied heavily on these lists to inform their vaccination policies," the CDC committee's "action could deny many parents the freedom to determine whether to subject their kids to an experimental vaccine."
The letter also described the COVID-19 vaccine, approved for children as young as 6 months old, as unneeded and ineffective, saying, "It is far too early in the process to potentially require otherwise healthy kids to get a vaccine that will not prevent them or others from getting sick."
Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of preventative medicine for Intermountain Healthcare, said she was surprised by the response from the attorneys general that, besides Utah and Louisiana, represent Missouri, Alabama, Montana, Arizona, Nebraska, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, Indiana, Texas and Kansas.
I just want to stress, it's not going to be a requirement in Utah.
–Rick Lakin, Utah Department of Health and Human Services
"This is something we use in the medical community as a tool, and not as a political tool," Sheffield said.
She said she hopes parents understand the COVID-19 vaccine "is something that can help give them peace of mind, that they know they're making the best choice they can to protect their child." She said the CDC committee heard "about child deaths that have happened since the COVID vaccine was available for children."
The doctor, who serves on one of the CDC committee's working groups, said all that's changed is that the federal agency's recommendation that children and adults stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations has been put on an immunizations schedule chart.
"There's nothing new besides saying they're now published in the schedule versus not published in the schedule. But the recommendations were already there," Sheffield said. The chart is regularly referred to by doctors and shared with patients, she said.
Seeing the COVID-19 vaccine on the chart is likely to encourage more people to get the shots, Sheffield said.
"It will help," she said. "We pull the schedule out and show a parent, these are the things your child needs. We pull the schedule out and show an adult, these are the vaccines you need. It's right here, easy for them to look at. So, of course, it will definitely help in uptake if people can easily understand what the recommendation is."
An added benefit of including COVID-19 is "it just helps people understand that it's now standard. It's what we do. It's no longer novel. It's just a regular recommendation," she said.
Earlier this week, President Joe Biden reiterated COVID-19 booster shots will be needed annually by most Americans, while some may need additional doses.
Lakin said the move by the CDC might prompt some states to require COVID-19 vaccinations for students entering school. "But Utah will not be one of them," he said.
Both California and Louisiana have backed off proposed school COVID-19 vaccine mandates this school year, citing the federal government's continued emergency use authorization for the shots in children.
The state's immunization director wasn't sure the inclusion of COVID-19 shots on the list of recommended immunizations would have much of an impact on the state's vaccination rate. Just over 63% of all Utahns have completed the initial vaccination series, compared to more than 68% nationwide.
"I don't know if it necessarily has any bearing," Lakin said. "I think the only way that it would really ever have a true effect is if it became a requirement in the state. But again, I just want to stress, it's not going to be a requirement in Utah."