ST. GEORGE — There is a light at the end of the tunnel. Those were the words of state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn with the Utah Department of Health Thursday as a timetable was released for the release in Southern Utah and the rest of the state of at least two COVID-19 vaccines that are on the verge of emergency approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
The timetable has the first vaccines going to healthcare workers directly treating COVID-19 patients at Dixie Regional Medical Center as soon as the week of Dec. 14. The rest of the timetable is fluid based on vaccine supplies but should be available to all Utahns as early as April and as late as June.
While for the first time there may be a clear endpoint for a pandemic that has now killed 95 people in Southern Utah and infected nearly eight of every 100 people here, health officials and the governor warned Thursday that there is still a lot of darkness left to go before getting to that light.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel so we just have to hold steady for the next few months,” Dunn said.
As a reminder of the tough road ahead, the Utah Department of Health said Southern Utah had its fourth-worst day of the pandemic Thursday a day after the one-day high with 323 new infections.
There were 312 new infections reported in St. George alone – the most in one day and 118 more than the previous high. In fact, every major local major city recorded their single-day high for new infections on Thursday including 118 in Cedar City and 67 in Washington City.
That may be a harbinger of what is to come, as the city-by-city figures released by the Utah Department of Health are usually a day ahead of the overall Southern Utah number released by the Southwest Utah Public Health Department.
During a press conference at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said as far as the number of those infected, the impact to hospitals and deaths, it is going to get worse before it gets better.
“It’s been nine months since the pandemic struck in Utah. The reality is we have many months to go. The next 45 to 60 days may be the toughest stretch of all,” Herbert said. “The good news is, there’s hope and help on the way.”
Frontline workers at Dixie Regional will be first to get the vaccine
Modeled around the phases of vaccine distribution being outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Intermountain Healthcare and Dixie Regional Medical Center outlined their timeline on Thursday for distributing the vaccine to all of Southern Utah.
The bottom line is the first people locally to get the vaccine will be those directly treating COVID-19 patients at Dixie Regional Medical Center as soon as in two weeks, as the FDA is expected to decide by then on whether to grant an emergency authorization of two COVID-19 vaccines in their final phases of testing.
The vaccines actually consist of two shots that need to be taken within 21 days of each other. According to medical officials, full immunity doesn’t take effect until a week after the second shot.
Dixie Regional, which will be renamed St. George Regional Hospital at the start of the year, is one of five hospitals in the state that is slated to get the first doses of the vaccine.
Because of the limited number of vaccines in the initial batch – Around 1,000 doses will be received at Dixie Regional initially according to Intermountain Healthcare – the first people to get injections will be those currently treating coronavirus patients.
“We will be targeting out highest risk providers … doctors, nurses who work bedside COVID patients but also environmental service workers (janitorial staff) and anesthesiologists,” said Dr. Kristin Dascomb, medical director of infection prevention employee health at Intermountain Healthcare. “As vaccine production increases, we will be able to expand rapidly to vaccinate as many persons as possible.”
By the end of the month, those getting the vaccine will be expanded first to first responders like police officers and firefighters before moving on to high-risk groups beginning with long-term care facility residents and essential workers like those who work for utility providers, food services and transportation by the start of 2021.
From there, next in line will be those 65 and over, followed by teachers, then those in other high-risk groups.
For the rest of those in Southern Utah, the current timetable has between May and June before most of the public can get the vaccine.
“We could be seeing vaccine as soon as the end of February but more likely April for those in the high-risk population, then next summer for the rest of the population,” Dr. Tamara Sheffield, community health and prevention medical director for Intermountain, said.
The governor has a more optimistic timetable for the release of the vaccine to the general population than those in the medical field do. “By April, everyone who wants a vaccine can get it,” Herbert said.
The group that may need to wait for the longest for a vaccine will be the youngest. Because the vaccine trials did not include anyone under 18, even when the vaccine is available for most of the population, it still may not be available for those 18 and under. Vaccine trials are just beginning in that age group.
“It’s going to be sometime before there is broad availability for school-age children,” Dunn said.
Besides supply, another factor that will under the speed of distribution is the virus needs to be stored in a specialized freezer between minus 45 and minus 75 degrees. It’s one of the reasons Dixie Regional is among the first to receive the vaccine as it already has the necessary specialized freezers in a secure area.
“It is very delicate and needs special handling,” Dascomb said.
Each vaccine – one by drugmaker Pfizer and the other by Moderna – have shown 90% to 95% effectiveness, according to the CDC. That compares to 97% effectiveness for the measles vaccine, 88% for the mumps vaccine and around 50% effectiveness for the current influenza vaccine.
An independent committee contracted by the FDA will decide next Thursday if it will endorse the approval of an emergency use authorization of the Pfizer vaccine, which has already been approved for use in the United Kingdom. A decision to approve the safety of the Maderna vaccine, which has proven 5% more effective than the Pfizer vaccine, is expected a week after.
State reduces recommended quarantine time
Following a new recommendation by the CDC, Utah has reduced the time someone needs to quarantine after exposure to someone with the coronavirus from 14 to 10 days, with the option to exit a quarantine after seven days with a negative COVID-19 test.
This will affect workers and students who have had to quarantine for as much as two weeks after just being exposed to someone with the virus.
But Dunn made clear that the move by the Utah Department of Health from guidance released Wednesday by the CDC is not based on any new knowledge of the gestation period of the virus. It’s still a 14-day cycle for the virus, but many people had trouble staying away from work and other activities for the full 14 days.
“This is to reduce the burden, but we should still be vigilant in that 14-day period,” Dunn said. “There’s still that risk for the next four days.”
Editor’s note: St. George News will have a report on the safety, effectiveness and side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine in the coming days, along with if people will be forced to take the vaccine.
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.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- World Health Organization
- Utah Department of Health
- Safe Southern Utah
- Información sobre coronavirus en español
- To file complaint about non-compliance with mask mandate
- Intermountain Healthcare
- To Donate and Volunteer to Help
Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Dec. 3, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)
Positive COVID-19 tests: 12,875 (228.9 new infections per day in seven days, rising since Dec. 2)
- Washington County: 10,233 (176.1 per day, rising)
- Iron County: 2,029 (43.8 per day, rising)
- Kane County: 193 (4.5 per day, rising)
- Garfield County: 245 (1.2 per day, rising)
- Beaver County: 175 (3 per day, rising)
New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):
- St. George: 312 (rising)
- Washington City: 67 (rising)
- Hurricane/LaVerkin: 57 (rising)
- Ivins City/Santa Clara: 58 (rising)
- Cedar City: 118 (rising)
Deaths: 95 (1.3 per day, rising)
- Washington County: 80 (1 new: female 65-84 at home.)
- Iron County: 6
- Garfield County: 6
- Kane County: 1
- Beaver County: 2
Hospitalized: 56 (rising)
Active cases: 4,079 (falling)
Current Utah seven-day average: 2,627 (rising)
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