SALT LAKE CITY — A COVID-19 vaccine could arrive in Utah as early as Dec. 15.
FOX 13 first reported the date early Thursday. It was later announced by Utah's Department of Health when the agency confirmed it had placed its initial order for the vaccine.
This afternoon we placed our first order for COVID-19 vaccines! These doses will be shipped directly to hospitals in Utah as soon as the FDA formally approves the vaccine. We expect to receive these doses sometime around Dec. 15. State of Utah Covid-19 Response pic.twitter.com/ljKXH695Yu— Utah Dept. of Health (@UtahDepOfHealth) December 3, 2020
But until it is widely available to everyone by this summer, Utahns will need to continue to wear face coverings, stay at least 6-feet from others, limit social gatherings and practice good hygiene.
"The next few months, maybe the next 45 to 60 days may be the toughest stretch of all," Governor Gary Herbert told reporters at a news conference on Thursday. "As we see cases going up, infection rates increasing."
The governor warned that winter may be the most difficult of the COVID-19 pandemic, as colder temperatures drive people indoors and a lack of physical distancing could trigger a surge in cases of the deadly virus. Already, Utah is seeing an increase in cases that aligns with the Thanksgiving holiday.
The state is spending $700,000 a month for overflow bed space at long-term care facilities for COVID-19 patients to help alleviate the situation at over-taxed hospitals, Gov. Herbert announced. On Thursday, intensive care unit capacity at Utah's 16 hospitals best equipped to deal with COVID-19 patients was nearly 89%.
On Thursday, Gov. Herbert kept intact all of his public health orders, including a statewide mask mandate and limits to social gatherings (less than 10 people in areas deemed high on the state's transmission index). Testing was being expanded at colleges, universities and high schools.
But ahead of the upcoming holidays, the governor signaled he was not likely to implement stricter measures like he did before Thanksgiving. He said it was difficult to enforce and believed they could not dictate to Utahns what they do in their homes.
"It doesn't mean it's a good idea," he said of social gatherings.
Meanwhile, the state and Utah's health care providers are making plans to start distributing a COVID-19 vaccine.
"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel," said state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn. "So we really need to hold steady over the next several months. Wearing our masks, trying to keep our close contacts to our household as much as possible, physical distancing and, of course, if you haven’t yet, get your flu vaccine."
Utah's two largest health care providers held a joint news conference on Thursday where they unveiled plans for vaccine distribution. Intermountain Healthcare and University of Utah Health said they anticipated receiving thousands of doses of the Pfizer-developed vaccine in mid-December.
Because it requires extreme cold temperatures to be stored, it will be distributed among five hospitals across the state best equipped to handle it (LDS, University of Utah, Intermountain Medical Center, Utah Valley Regional and Dixie Regional). Priority will be those health care workers, including pharmacy and housekeeping staff, who work directly with COVID-19 patients. They will create pop-up clinics to give the first doses to as many as 750 people a day.
"We’re really targeting those health care personnel that are on the front lines taking care of COVID patients since March," said Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer, the chief of infection prevention at University of Utah Health.
As FOX 13 first reported in October, the Utah Department of Health had planned for the vaccine to be distributed in waves based on priority. For example, long-term care facility workers are expected to be in the initial wave and then it will branch out to other first-responders, essential workers and ultimately, the general public by summer.
UDOH has estimated wide distribution by July. It is possible that as Utah receives multiple brands of vaccine, the timeline could be sped up. It requires two doses and physicians warned it may also require a booster shot.
Until then, Utahns will need to remain cautious because the virus will continue to spread.
"We will continue to need to practice and be vigilant until we make can sure the virus is no longer circulating throughout our communities," said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, the medical director for Intermountain Healthcare's Community Health and Prevention.