Utahns 75 and over moved up in priority for COVID-19 vaccine; essential workers moved down

Photo illustration. | Photo by Ridofranz, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The timeline for when people in Utah will receive the COVID-19 vaccine has changed. People 75 or older have been moved up, while a person’s occupation as an essential worker will no longer be considered as criteria for vaccine prioritization. It was also clarified when teachers and long-term care patients and staff will be getting the vaccine.

The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine stored in a refrigerator at Riverton Hospital in Riverton, Utah, in late-December 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

The Utah Department of Health announced Monday morning that all Utahns aged 75 and over have been moved to the start of phase 2 of the vaccine distribution. Presently, phase 1 is continuing. It started with frontline staff at Dixie Regional Medical Center staff and will expand this week to all medical staff throughout the state, including staff at Southern Utah’s other medical facilities, including Cedar City Hospital. 

Thus far, Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, said the main complaint of those receiving the vaccine is arm soreness. However, the more severe short-term side effects of the vaccine – including fever and chills for up to 48 hours – have been seen after the second vaccine shot that needs to be taken no more than 21 days after the first. 

K-12 teachers and staff and long-term care staff and patients will be up next, at this point in the middle of next month. First responders will be up right after that to close out phase 1 in early February. Phase 2 would then begin in mid-February for anyone aged 75 or older who wants the vaccine. 

“As we move into phase 2 of our vaccination program, it simply makes the most sense to vaccinate those who are at the highest risk for hospitalization and death first,” Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement. “We will continue to refine our plans, and to move forward under the principle that those who stand to suffer the most should be vaccinated first.”

The timetable as of Dec. 28, 2020, for release of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Utah Department of Health. | Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Vento said starting from age 75, rather than any earlier age, makes sense. 

“That’s really key. That group is the group most at risk,” Vento said. “The sooner we start doing those things, probably in a matter of months we will see a lowering of hospitalizations.”

According to the Utah Department of Health, those ages 85 or over make up a majority, 26.5%, of hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the state and more than four times as likely to die as any other age group.

Previously, occupation was going to be a category to determine who gets vaccination. Essential workers – considered to be those in the grocery, food service, utility and transportation industries – were slated for priority. However, the health department is now opting to prioritize based on age and other risk factors, a move welcomed by the incoming governor, Spencer Cox.

“Focusing on age will do more to reduce infections and alleviate hospitalizations than any other category of individuals as we continue to administer vaccinations,” Cox said. “I’m very supportive of this change and know it will save lives.”

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine seen in late-December 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Essential workers will now need to wait until the vaccine is released to the general population, expected to be sometime between April and June. 

The department of health is still determining the order of those who will receive the vaccine among high-risk groups after those 75 and over receive it. 

The supply of vaccine has been growing slower than expected with fewer supplies than expected from the federal level. Whereas at least 15,000 doses were promised for Southern Utah by now, the Utah Department of Health said the area has received 7,325 doses at this point.

The supply may receive a boost soon as the transition team of President-Elect Joe Biden announced Monday that it would be invoking the Defense Production Act to increase vaccine production. The act, which allows a president to order companies to prioritize certain manufacturing, was used by President Donald Trump earlier in the year to increase the production of ventilators at a time when ventilator supply was considered low – something that has not been an issue since then.

Health care workers are receiving the vaccine from supply shipped directly to the hospitals. 

St. George News has learned that some local long-term care centers have been told they will be receiving supplies of the vaccine on Jan. 15. Those vaccines are being handled through national pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens as well as Community Nursing Services, are providing vaccines in long-term care facilities. 

Local school districts, including the Washington and Iron county districts, are coordinating with the Southwest Utah Public Health Department on the distribution to teachers and staff. Like those in the medical facilities, schools are not expected to make the vaccine mandatory in the short-term. 

As for those 75 and over in phase 2, there are expected to be mass vaccination clinics through local health departments – something for which the Southwest Utah Public Health Department has already held a dry run. After that, the vaccine is expected to be available through pharmacies and health care providers similar to how flu shots are available now. 

Virus is mutating, but vaccine will still work

In the last week, a mutation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that more easily causes infection and is easier to transmit has appeared in 50% of new infections in the United Kingdom and has already spread worldwide, including being detected over the weekend in the Los Angeles area. 

Dr. Todd Vento, infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, seen during a Zoom teleconference on Dec. 28, 2020 | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

But Vento said the good news is the vaccine is still effective against the mutated virus.

“The virus mutation allows the virus to transmit easier and needs less virus to get into the body. But they have looked at people who have the vaccine and seen the vaccine can also make people immune to the mutated strain,” Vento said. “Viruses mutate. That’s what they do.”

Vento said mutations and uncertainty over whether those immunized for the virus can still transmit it is part of the reason why medical professionals are recommending to continue preventative measures like mask-wearing and distancing for a time even after the vaccine is widely administered.

“If you think, ‘The vaccine is here, we’re done,’ you need to do expectation management for yourself and committing to the long haul,” Vento said. “We’re climbing a mountain and we have an assist to get to the top of the mountain. We can see the top of the mountain … but we can’t put a timeline on it because if we get to that time and we’re not there, we’ll be saying, ‘Why aren’t we at the top of the mountain?’”

Vento added that it is too early to tell if when a vaccinated person carries the virus, they still can’t spread it. 

Too early to see if holidays will create new surge

With the gestation period of the virus, Vento said it will be a week or two before the impact of the Christmas and New Year’s holiday gatherings is determined.

Chart shows the percentage chance of being exposed to COVID-19 in room with 10 people in certain cities as of Dec. 28, 2020, according to the Georgia Tech biological sciences department. | Background photos by Chris Reed, St. George News, Pixabay; Graphic by Chris Reed, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“Our main concern with holiday exposure compared to Thanksgiving is there is more time with others between Christmas and New Year’s,” Vento said.

At the same time, Vento said hospitalizations have stabilized, albeit still at a high level necessitating that the current contingencies seen at places like Dixie Regional Medical Center will continue. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at the end of last week, Dixie Regional was at 73% capacity with 22% of beds taken up with COVID-19 patients. Cedar City Hospital was 60% full with 24% of beds with COVID-19 patients.

New infections are also seeing a sharp downturn, though Vento cautioned those numbers may not be reliable indicators right now, as testing was closed for the holidays and any possible surge from the holidays has yet to be taken into account.  

“The next two to three months are going to be important,” Vento said. “Those preventive measures don’t change. We can’t get ahead of ourselves.”

COVID-19 information resources

St. George News has made every effort to ensure the information in this story is accurate at the time it was written. However, as the situation and science surrounding the coronavirus continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data has changed.

Check the resources below for up-to-date information and resources.

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Dec. 28, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 18,171 (187.1 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Dec. 22)

  • County-by-county numbers released later Monday

New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):

  • St. George: 66 (falling)
  • Washington City: 27 (falling)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 19 (falling)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 11 (falling)
  • Cedar City: 32 (falling)

Deaths: 132 (0.9 per day, falling)

  • Washington County: 107 (2 new since last report: Long-term care female over 85, hospitalized female over 85)
  • Iron County: 15 
  • Garfield County: 7 
  • Kane County: 1
  • Beaver County: 2

Hospitalized: Hospitalization numbers released later Monday

Active cases: 6,862 (rising)

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,969 (falling)

Vaccines shipped to  Southern Utah: 7,325

Number of initial vaccine injections in Southern Utah: 502

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

Free News Delivery by Email

Would you like to have the day's news stories delivered right to your inbox every evening? Enter your email below to start!