SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox authorized medical providers in Utah to make vaccine booster shots available to any resident over 18 due to most of the state being considered "high risk" for COVID-19 transmission.
"Because of the elevated COVID-19 cases right now in the state of Utah, almost all Utahns reside in a high transmission county and therefore are at high risk of contracting COVID-19, especially the Delta variant," the governor said.
Speaking to reporters at his monthly news conference, the governor acknowledged there has been a lot of confusion about who qualifies for a COVID-19 vaccine booster.
"We just want to make it very simple, especially as we're heading into the holiday season. We know families are going to be getting together, with higher-risk grandparents, we want families to be as safe as possible," Gov. Cox said.
The announcement, using Utah's high number of COVID-19 cases, effectively bypasses the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, which is still deliberating whether to expand boosters to all who are eligible. But CDC guidance does allow for booster shots for any Utahn at a "high risk."
The boosters will be available to any Utah adult starting Friday.
Utah's Department of Health said the move could also help the state get a handle on high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
"Unfortunately, here in Utah, we continue to have high rates of transmission. We have seen quite a few breakthrough cases," said state epidemiologist Dr. Leisha Nolan. "Luckily, those breakthrough cases are generally very mild. But they’re still occurring. We realize the best way to get this under control in our entire population is to get everyone boosted."
Hospitalizations have also been exceedingly high, said Dr. Michele Hofmann, the deputy director of the Utah Department of Health.
"In our ICUs we had zero beds in the Intermountain Healthcare system and we’re teetering on nearly full occupancy levels based on the numbers of our available staff," she told reporters at a news conference Thursday.
Intermountain Healthcare also weighed in on the new policy, thanking Cox for his effort to get more Utahns vaccinated against COVID-19.
“We are grateful for the governor’s support of the COVID vaccine, and strongly encourage everyone eligible to be fully vaccinated, and receive the booster when appropriate," said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, Intermountain Healthcare Medical Director of Preventive Medicine. "This is also an excellent time for 5-to-11 year-old children to be vaccinated, since they can then receive their second dose prior to Christmas.”
With the holidays approaching, the governor urged Utahns to get vaccinated. As of Wednesday, 67% of Utahns over age 5 had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine; 59% were considered fully vaccinated. Since the vaccine was made available to children, the governor said he was encouraged by the uptick — roughly 44,000 children had received one dose in the past two weeks.
While encouraging all Utahns who are eligible to be vaccinated, the state has taken action against mandates. Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes has signed on to a series of lawsuits against the Biden administration for federal occupational safety rules that require vaccination or regular COVID-19 testing.
While he has been vocal about his opposition to government mandates, Gov. Cox has supported the right of private businesses to do it on their own. But he did sign a law from the special session that grants exemptions to workplace mandates.
Asked by FOX 13 about that, the governor warned that an all-out ban on workplace vaccine mandates would still be met by a veto.
"I did say that I would veto any bill that had an outright mandate prohibition," Gov. Cox said. "This did not have that."
The bill allows employees to claim a religious, medical or personal exemption reason and has private employers accommodate them, by potentially working from home or in another capacity. However, it was watered down to stay that job could not be reassigned, the employee could still be terminated.
"I felt that this was a good way to take some of the tension out of the room, still encouraging people and businesses to have vaccine mandates, but to allow for some exemptions for strongly held views," he said. "We're not accomplishing anything with the fighting that's going on."
The governor seemed to still encourage private businesses to impose mandates, if they wanted it. He noted that in negotiating with the legislature, many private business interests were involved.
"They would have not have supported an outright ban on any type of vaccine mandate," he said.