As booster COVID vaccine shots are approved, Southern Utah health director says herd immunity is near

Stock photo. | Photo by iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — During a Southwest Utah Public Health Department meeting this week, the head of the department said COVID-19 is “on the wane” and Southern Utah is nearing herd immunity. 

A sign on 700 East/University Boulevard points the way to the on-campus COVID-19 test site at Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, Aug. 11, 2021 | Photo by Ammon Teare, St. George News

This is contrary to assertions made Friday by health care providers and officials with the Utah Department of Health who say COVID-19 is at a “high plateau.” 

COVID-19 deaths have seen an uptick locally this week and the surgical director of St. George Regional Hospital said Friday that overcrowding from a continued influx of COVID-19 patients cost the life of at least one heart patient whose procedure was delayed because of the lack of a bed for them. It was also revealed that in the last few weeks, the hospital was down to one to three ventilators available for use. 

Meanwhile, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave its final approval on Thursday night, a slew of new COVID-19 vaccine booster shots are now available in Southern Utah. That includes the ability for people to receive a “mix and match” booster shot of a different vaccine than the one they initially received.

Expecting a demand for booster shots, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department is returning to appointment-only reservations for vaccinations.

State of the pandemic

Speaking to the Southwest Utah Board of Health during their meeting at the department’s office in Cedar City on Wednesday,  Southwest Utah Health Department Director Dr. David Blodgett said that a combination of people who are fully vaccinated and those who have already had COVID-19 means that the area is approaching a herd immunity against the virus.

Southwest Utah Public Health Department Director Dr. David Blodgett listens in to members of the Southwest Utah Public Health Board during their meeting at the department’s Beaver, Utah office, June 10, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

“This pandemic is on the wane,” Blodgett told the board. “Eighty percent is where we expected herd immunity, and I think we’re really close to that.”

As of Friday, according to the Utah Department of Health, a minority – 43.8% of Southern Utahns – are fully immunized. That number bumps up to 53% if those under 12, who currently do not qualify for the vaccine, are taken out of the total. 

This week, the Ivins/Santa Clara area became the first community in Southern Utah to exceed more than 50% who are fully vaccinated.

There have been 40,281 COVID-19 infections in Southern Utah since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, according to the U.S. Census of 251,764. That’s about 16% of the population, though some of those cases are repeat infections of the same individuals, and officials have said in the past that the actual count is under-reported by as much as half. 

During a conference call with reporters on Friday,  Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious disease specialist with Intermountain Healthcare, said he sees infections in the state presently sticking to a “stable high” that is providing no relief to a taxed hospital system. 

“What we’re seeing is we’re at a high plateau,” Stenehjem said. “We dropped off a bit, but we haven’t dropped off like we hoped. We’re in a period of stability where our hospitals are full and our ICUs are at capacity.”

That said, Stenehjem said the Intermountain hospitals that include St. George Regional Hospital and Cedar City Hospital have been seeing fewer people coming in with COVID-19 symptoms to emergency rooms, giving him hope that a drop may be coming. 

According to the state’s COVID-19 Transmission Index, which goes off the actual rates of infection, all of Southern Utah’s counties remain at a high-transmission level. Only two of Utah’s 29 counties are below that. 

On the positive side, Kane County now has the lowest infection rate in the state. However, its percentage of positive tests is keeping it in the high-transmission category.

Map shows the current level of each county in Utah according to the COVID-19 Transmission Index provided by the Utah Department of Health as of Oct. 22, 2021 | Photo courtesy Utah Department of Health, St. George News | Click to enlarge

After being down in the last two weeks, new COVID-19 infections are up 6.8% this week in Southern Utah according to the Utah Department of Health. Deaths locally were up this week, while the number of those hospitalized has remained the same at around 53. 

At another board meeting in June, Blodgett said that COVID-19 was becoming just “a part of the diseases we see on a regular basis” and indicated the pandemic was near its end and on a long-term plateau.  

This week, Blodgett noted a third wave that has taken place since then starting in August, noting the number of deaths that have taken place in Southern Utah since then.

“When we came into the latest wave, we were at 290 deaths, so we’ve seen 80 deaths over this latest wave,” he said of the 388 who have died locally in the pandemic, including 11 in the last week.

Blodgett said the amount of COVID-19 infections is heading down and added that while he expects a spike this winter, it won’t be that bad in Southern Utah – especially compared to last winter.

“We’re going to plateau, but I just don’t see us seeing the spike like we did last fall.”

According to Utah Department of Health statistics, the most recent surge did not have the high amount of infections as last fall and winter but did exceed it as far as deaths and hospitalizations. 

Of Southern Utahns who have died from from COVID-19, 43.7% have died since June (from 270 to 388). St. George Regional Hospital has frequently set records for the most number of patients at one time in its history during that time.

Of those who have died, Blodgett asserted that it has been mostly the older population. While officials at the hospital have said they were seeing younger people “that are leaving children behind” and not retired in the most recent surge, Blodgett said, “The people who are in the hospital are younger but they’re not dying.”

“If you were to take those over the age of 65 out of the category, we would have more flu deaths among those in the younger category,” Blodgett said.

That statement is not backed up by statistics from the Utah Department of Health.

According to Utah Department of Health statistics, of the 3,128 Utahns who have died of COVID-19, 838 have been below the age of 65. 

Jenny Johnson, spokesperson with the Utah Department of Health, told St. George News that while 2021 statistics are unavailable, 76 of the 280 Utahns who died of influenza/pneumonia in 2020 were under 65. In 2019, 68 people younger than 65 died of the flu or pneumonia. 

Nurses and doctors attend to a COVID-19 patient on a ventilator at a Utah hospital in an updated photo | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Blodgett said while he isn’t entirely sure of the reasons for the recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, in his opinion, younger people being naturally healthier are also causing them to need longer hospitalizations as their good health and better treatments are keeping them in the hospital longer. 

“The hospitalization rate is where it should have been. They just stayed in the hospital longer because they were younger.”

During the board meeting, Blodgett also criticized the actions of previous Gov. Gary Herbert during the beginning stages of the pandemic in 2020. He said the initial lockdowns caused mistrust in public health among Utahns.

He said:

The worst thing that ever happened in this pandemic is the governor saying he’s forcing people to stay home. Because now the side that wants things to be done doesn’t think the government is doing anything if mandates are not in place, and the side that doesn’t want mandates thinks mandates are the worst thing they’ve ever heard.

There’s no place for good public health that was in the middle to make good recommendations that could help people’s lives. Good public health will tell you the science and help you make a good decision, not force you into it.  We’re never going to recover good public health … certainly not for COVID in my career and that’s tragic.

Booster shots approved

On Thursday, the CDC gave final approval of vaccine booster shots for those who had been vaccinated with the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines – joining the previously approved Pfizer booster shots. 

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

“Providing booster doses can help prevent COVID-19 related hospitalizations and deaths. With hospitals still operating at full capacity, and with the winter months just around the corner, the timing is right to seek out a booster dose if you qualify. It also remains critically important that people who haven’t been vaccinated go get their vaccine now,” said state Epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolen with the Utah Department of Health.

For Moderna, like Pfizer, the booster shots are only reserved for those who received their second dose more than six months ago and are ages 65 and over, or those who are over 18 who have a high-risk health condition or a high-risk work environments such as health care, first responders, retail workers and teachers. 

However, the booster for J&J applies to anyone over 18 who has previously received it within two months. 

Evidence indicates that Pfizer and J&J have had some waning immunity compared to Moderna. That is especially the case with the one-shot J&J vaccine, which has resulted in more breakthrough hospitalizations and deaths than the other vaccines.

“Think of the J&J booster as the second shot in your series,” Stenehjem said. 

The Utah Department of Health has directed all of the state’s vaccine providers to offer the booster shots immediately. The Southwest Utah Public Health Department has previously told St. George News it would be ready.

However, during the Southwest Utah Public Health Board meeting Wednesday, Blodgett told board members he doesn’t expect it to be easy with those who were vaccinated during the early portion of vaccinations that saw lines at vaccination clinics coming back for their boosters.

“We might be back in the mode where we have a lot of people calling in and not enough vaccine so not looking forward to the next couple of weeks,” Blodgett said. 

Because of the expected demand, the Southwest Utah Public Health Department is returning to online appointments for vaccinations.

David Heaton, spokesperson with the local health department, said next week’s appointments will only have Moderna available. But that will still be permissible for everyone who qualifies for a booster shot under mix and match.

It’s unclear if any other local health providers or pharmacies will return strictly to appointments, rather than walk-up.

Links to setting up COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots are at the end of this article.

Those who receive the booster shot could have the same kind of side effects as the previous COVID-19 vaccinations they received as the body’s immune system again goes into overdrive. According to the Federal Drug Administration, this includes pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, fever and muscle pain that don’t last more than 48 hours. 

However, the AARP said in their own research that the side effects of booster shots have been “substantially lower” than the previous vaccination shots. 

Stenehjem said there also isn’t such a thing as having too many antibodies.

“Our antibody levels wane over time,” he said. “The booster brings that back up to the level of when you first got the shot. There’s no concern about adding a booster.”

Medical workers fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination clinic inside the St. George Active Life Center on Feb. 11, 2021. St. George, Utah | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Both state and local health officials agree there is nothing harmful about using a different vaccine for the booster shot. A CDC study involving 458 participants who mixed one COVID-19 vaccine with another said there were no severe adverse reactions beyond the typical, temporary vaccine side effects. 

However, Stenehjem echoed other health officials in recommending that if possible, they stick with the same kind of shot they got in the first place, adding mix and match allows for people to use other vaccines when supplies of their vaccine aren’t available.

“We’re still recommending that people get their booster shot be the same series as their first,” Stenehjem said. “In those people who can’t then its OK to mix and match.”

Nolen differs a bit in her recommendations, saying those with the J&J vaccine should consider a different vaccine for their booster.

“There are some data to suggest people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are better protected if they receive a booster of either the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine,” Nolen said.

Differing from epidemiologist Nolen, Blodgett – whose background is in preventative medicine – said there isn’t a large consensus that boosters are needed at all and was especially frigid as far as the need for Moderna boosters.

“The booster shot is based on the idea of breakthrough infections. That number is itching up, but the effectiveness against hospitalization and deaths hasn’t changed,” Blodgett said. “Moderna’s really good. I don’t think you need a booster for Moderna.”

Blodgett is much warmer about the need for vaccines in general, which he said is not about just stopping COVID-19 in its tracks. 

We’re not saying anyone who is vaccinated isn’t going to get sick with COVID,” Blodgett said. “You keep people from the hospital from dying.”

Blodgett said there have been three breakthrough deaths of COVID-19 in Southern Utah among those who have been fully vaccinated. Of those three, two were kidney transplant recipients and the other was in the later stages of cancer. 

While Blodgett touted the natural immunity of those who have already had the virus, he said that shouldn’t deter them from getting vaccinated, describing as “almost zero” the number of people who have been hospitalized for COVID-19 who had previously had it and also got immunized.

“I think you’re almost bulletproof,” he said.

During the meeting, Blodgett was asked by a board member if anyone locally has died from one of the vaccines.

“No, not that I’ve found,” he said.

Not enough beds at hospital

When doctors, nurses and medical staff arrive at St. George Regional Hospital in the morning, there may be one or two spaces available for a new patient.

The outside of St. George Regional Hospital seen as as a sustained rain falls on the St. George area, St. George, Utah, Oct. 8, 2021 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

Lately, that hasn’t been the case later in the day. 

While it’s not all COVID-19 cases, they continue to fill most of the intensive care unit, which remains beyond capacity. And that is having a ripple effect through the whole hospital, as there aren’t ICU beds available for patients who would need them after surgery. 

“In the morning, we may have three or four beds but by the afternoon we have to turn some away,” said Dr. Edward Prince, medical director of surgical services at St. George Regional Hospital. “This has been tough on the community because sometimes life saving procedures aren’t happening. We had one instance where a patient needing bypass had their surgery delayed. They passed away.”

Recently, a local leader told St. George News that they had been in the ICU to visit a friend for another illness, and said they thought the ICU didn’t look as crowded as he would have expected. 

Dr. Edward Prince, medical director of surgical services at St. George Regional Hospital, seen during a Zoom teleconference, Oct. 22, 2021 | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

But Prince said even if it appears that way, that is not the case. He said from the beginning of the pandemic, the hospital has made an effort not to have patients lying on gurneys in hallways or other signs of overcrowding. 

The other issue is staffing. While the hospital’s medical director, Dr. Patrick Carroll, has said previously that the hospital actually has as much staffing as it would usually have in a non-pandemic year, it isn’t enough right now. 

With that, Prince said someone seeing an empty bed in the hospital doesn’t mean one is available. 

“We’re not in the business of putting in so many patients that we can’t take care of them,” Prince said. “You can come in the hospital, and you may see an empty bed. It’s not because we don’t have a bed; we don’t have a nurse. They’re burned out so we haven’t been overloading them.”

Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Friday, according to Utah Department of Health)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 40,281 (7-day average of 91.86 per day, up 6.8% in last week)

Active cases: 1,860 (falling)

  • Washington County (High in Transmission Index): 406.07 per 100K rate in 14 days, falling since Oct. 15
  • Iron County (High): 733.05, steady
  • Kane County (High): 240.93, falling
  • Garfield County (High): 613.74, falling
  • Beaver County (High): 804.77 rising

Hospitalized: 53 (fsteady)

Deaths: 388 (11 since Oct. 15)

New infections per day in Southern Utah:

  • Saturday (Oct. 16): 98
  • Sunday (Oct. 17): 81
  • Monday (Oct. 18): 48
  • Tuesday (Oct. 19): 93
  • Wednesday (Oct. 20): 76
  • Thursday (Oct. 21): 140
  • Friday (Oct. 22): 112

Current Utah seven-day average: 1,397 (rising)

Fully vaccinated in  Southern Utah: 111,307 (43.8% fully vaccinated, +0.5% since Oct. 15)

  • St. George: 47.66% fully vaccinated (+0.47%) 
  • Cedar City: 38.94% (+0.63%)
  • Washington City: 43.74% (+0.39%)
  • Ivins/Santa Clara: 50.06% (+0.35%)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 37.01% (+0.4%)
  • Enterprise/Veyo/Springdale/Hildale: 42.46% (+0.31%)
  • Beaver/Garfield/Kane counties: 41.93% (+0.5%)

Southern Utah schools active COVID-19 infections (as of Friday, according to Utah Department of Health)

NOTE: Utah Department of Health currently providing only ranges of the number of infections in each district, rather than exact figures. Figures may be an overall undercount as not all infections among students are reported to the state.

    • Washington County School District: 27 to 93 (rising since Oct. 15)
    • Iron County School District: 24 to 54 (falling)
    • Kane County School District: 1-4 (falling)
    • Garfield County School District: 1-4 (falling)
    • Beaver County School District: 2-8 (rising)
    • Southwest Utah Charter Schools: 3-12 (falling)
    • Southwest Utah Private Schools: 0 (steady)

Schools in yellow (In danger of moving to test-to-stay): None
Schools in red (Students/staff must test negative to attend): None
Top 5 schools: Canyon View Middle (Iron) 8 active infections, Three Peaks School (Iron) 6, Dixie High (Washington) 5, several others at 1-4.

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine

  • Those who can currently get first dose of the vaccine: Everyone ages 12 and over. Those 12-18 can only receive the Pfizer vaccine. Use to find clinics that have the Pfizer vaccine.
  • Those who can receive the second dose: Those who received their first injection 28 days or more before the appointment time.
  • Those who can receive a booster dose: Those who received Pfizer or Moderna at least six months ago and are 65 or older or 18+ with underlying health conditions or high-risk occupations. Those who received Johnson & Johnson at least two months ago and are 18 or older. Booster shot can be of any form of COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The Southwest Utah Public Health Department is currently online appointment only. Some pharmacies and stores are offering walk-up appointments. Check the links below before going.
  • Must wear a short-sleeve shirt at appointment and should have a personal ID.
  • Vaccines are free of charge.

Washington County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department St. George office, 620 S. 400 East, St George

For hours and more information: Click here 

Iron County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Cedar City office, 260 DL Sargent Dr., Cedar City, 84721.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Kane County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Kanab office, 445 N. Main St., Kanab.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Garfield County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Panguitch office, 601 Center St., Panguitch.

For hours and more information: Click here 

Beaver County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Beaver Office,  75 1175 North, Beaver.

For hours and more information: Click here 

St. George Regional Hospital/Intermountain Healthcare:

Where: 400 East Campus St. George Regional Hospital,  544 S. 400 East, St. George.

Reservations: Click to register

FourPoints Health:

Where: Various locations.

For hours and more information:: Click here

Revere Health:

Where: Revere Health Campus,  2825 E. Mall Drive, St. George.

Reservations: Call (435) 673-6131 to determine if vaccine is available.


Where: 745 N Dixie Dr in St. George and 915 Red Cliffs Dr. in Washington City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 1189 E. 700 South in St. George and 3520 Pioneer Parkway in Santa Clara.

Reservations: Click to register

Lin’s Marketpace:

Where: 1930 W. Sunset Blvd.  and 2928 E. Mall Drive in St. George, 1120 State St. in Hurricane and 150 N Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Smith’s Food and Drug:

Where: 20 N. Bluff St. and 565 S. Mall Drive in St. George and 633 S. Main St. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 275 S River Rd. in St. George.

Reservations: Click to register


Where: 2610 Pioneer Rd. in St. George, 625 W. Telegraph St. in Washington City, 180 N. 3400 West in Hurricane and 1330 S. Providence Center Dr. in Cedar City.

Reservations: Click to register

Family pharmacies:

Where: Several locations

Reservations: Use to find a location near you

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.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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