SALT LAKE CITY — Governor Spencer Cox has ordered COVID-19 vaccine timelines to start speeding up.
"This virus does not sleep. This virus does not take weekends off and neither should we," the governor said at a news conference on Friday. "It is unacceptable to have vaccines sitting on the shelf. And moving forward, I assure you there will be no vaccines sitting on a shelf."
FOX 13 first reported earlier this week that Gov. Cox would announce that K-12 teachers and school staffers would get the vaccine next week, and Utah's Department of Health was preparing to speed up vaccine timelines. The governor said it would be available to local school districts starting Monday.
"It is an exciting time in our state to see educators prioritized in this fashion. By allowing teachers to be a priority for the COVID-19 vaccine, we are giving them the necessary extra layer of protection to feel safe inside of their classrooms," Superintendent of Public Instruction Dr. Sydnee Dickson said in a statement Friday. "This step allows school communities to continue to excel in meeting student needs by allowing for quality in person instruction."
The governor went further and announced that Utahns over the age of 70 would start being offered the vaccine by Jan. 18. Gov. Cox then directed long-term care facilities to finish first-dose vaccine distribution by Jan. 23.
Local health departments will now take charge of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, as they have the capability of doing mass inoculations. Until now, hospitals and clinics have been doing it — focused on health care workers.
Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson has been asked to help ensure vaccine distribution happens quickly and state resources are shifted to help with mass vaccination.
"Gov. Cox has asked me to visit sites throughout the state of Utah in the next couple of weeks to see how vaccine administration is going," she said.
In prior interviews with FOX 13, Gov. Cox has expressed frustration at the slow pace of vaccination in Utah. On Friday, the governor ordered health departments, hospitals and clinics to report every 24 hours how many people they have administered vaccines to.
As of Friday, 75,115 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been given out, mostly to health care workers, emergency responders and long-term care facilities. Second-dose vaccinations began this week in Utah hospitals.
Gov. Cox eliminated "essential workers" from consideration in the state's COVID-19 vaccine plan. Instead, it focuses on age and risk. After all Utahns 70 and older are offered the vaccine, those over 60 with co-morbidities will be next. They are all the most vulnerable, state officials have insisted.
In response to a question from FOX 13 on Friday, the governor said he expects Utah will exhaust its weekly supply of doses. It's a strategy that would enable Utah to seek additional doses from the federal government and potentially get to general public vaccination sooner.
"The more we use this, the quicker we use this, that moves all our timelines up," he said.
But Utah is currently facing another crisis. It appears Utahns did not heed state health officials' advice over the Christmas and New Year's holidays, with the number of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths surging. The state avoided a similar problem because many Utahns elected not to gather over Thanksgiving.
"It’s clear we’ve let our guard down and there is a lot of excitement about the vaccine. But we need to come together again," state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said. "We need to focus on what we can do as individuals to protect our hospitals by preventing the spread of COVID. Those fundamentals apply, wear a mask, physical distance as much as you can, stay home when you're sick, get tested."
But Gov. Cox said right now he is not planning to enact further restrictions. He will keep the statewide mask mandate and existing health orders in place (that were enacted by his predecessor, Gov. Gary Herbert).
An executive order issued on Friday by Gov. Cox sets the terms of vaccine distribution. Read it here: