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Utah races to get vaccines in arms ahead of COVID-19 'endgame'

Posted at 4:25 PM, Mar 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-16 19:54:22-04

SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah is preparing to increase vaccine administration efforts as more doses become available.

But the state is now racing a deadline — April 10 has been set by the Utah State Legislature to lift the statewide mask mandate. That was negotiated between lawmakers, Governor Spencer Cox and the Utah Department of Health in the bill dubbed the "COVID-19 endgame." Some lawmakers had originally proposed lifting the statewide mask mandate immediately.

"We’re hoping to have just under 900,000 shots in arms by then. Those are first doses," Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, who oversees vaccine efforts for the state, said in an interview with FOX 13 on Tuesday. "We are hoping that every day that we go buys us 25,000-30,000 shots in arms and it protects us that much more."

But Utah relies on how many doses it can obtain through the federal government. The state is expected to get more doses in the coming weeks. So far, Utah's COVID-19 Unified Command has been averaging around 150,000 doses a week (and the adult population is estimated to be around 2.3 million).

Lt. Gov. Henderson said the good news is Utah has a high adoption rate for the COVID-19 vaccine. For example, 85% of Utahns over age 70 have gotten it. But she does worry about a drop off.

"We’re seeing some really good progress. What we’re worried about is that as the vaccine becomes available but restrictions are lifted, we’re worried that people will start to become complacent and not feel that sense of urgency to go and get their vaccine," she said.

The state has prioritized vaccines by age and risk. Currently, Utahns over age 50 and those 16+ with a list of co-morbidities can be inoculated. Lt. Gov. Henderson told FOX 13 there are no plans to change who is eligible for a vaccine between now and April 1, when it will be opened up to all adults.

She urged people to check now to see if they qualify for the vaccine and not wait to get it. Lt. Gov. Henderson has also pushed a COVID-19 equity plan that has been doing specific outreach to communities that might have language or technology barriers and, in some cases, holding vaccine clinics in their neighborhoods.

Gov. Cox told FOX 13 on the last night of the legislative session that he intends to sign the "endgame" bill. He and representatives of the state's COVID-19 Unified Command have said there will still be a mask mandate in place for all K-12 schools and in gatherings were there are 50 or more people. County governments can also issue their own mask mandates if they see fit. The bill also does not prohibit a private business from implementing a mask mandate.

"It’s still possible that we’ll see a lot of masks being worn which is still a tool in fighting the pandemic," said Joe Dougherty, a spokesman for the Unified Command.

Still, state officials do worry that people will start to become complacent with masks, physical distancing and other health recommendations as more people become vaccinated.

"Anecdotally, we’re hearing some of these stories that people have heard the legislation that was passed, that hasn’t been signed into law yet," Dougherty said. "People are starting to relax and we just really encourage them, this is not the time to give up. We want to encourage them we have to do everything we can to protect the people who haven’t vaccinated yet or can’t get vaccinated yet."

About 16% of the adult population of Utah is now fully vaccinated, according to the Utah Department of Health. Lt. Gov. Henderson said the finish line is in sight, but cautioned: "we just need to keep running."

If cases do start to surge as a result of the mask mandate and other health restrictions being lifted, it can be re-evaluated, she told FOX 13.

"If something starts going array, if our cases start surging, if things start going south we can take other action," she said. "I hope that doesn’t happen. I’m very optimistic."