More contagious variant of COVID-19 arrives in Utah; Some vaccine sign-ups for 70 and over now online

Stock photo. | Photo by ayvengo/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Reservations are now available for those over 70 to get the vaccine in every Southern Utah county except Washington County.

Updated 7:30 p.m., Jan. 15, 2021: All of the available reservation slots for non-school staff vaccination clinics in Iron, Kane, Garfield and Beaver counties are now full. More slots will be opening in the coming weeks.

Stock image. | Photo by
Choreograph/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

The ages 70 and over group is the first general population group that has been made eligible to receive the vaccine locally. Health officials and the governor have urged patience as slots may fill quickly but more reservation slots will go online. It is expected to take until the end of February to cover those who want the vaccine in that age group.

Proving that point, by 7:30 p.m. Friday, all of the reservation slots in Iron, Kane, Garfield and Beaver counties were full.  

The Southwest Utah Public Health Department said reservations for 70 and over, pertaining to Washington County residents, will go online on Monday.

The department’s director, Dr. David Blodgett, said the reason for the controlled pace of reservations, rather than just opening up vaccines to those who just show up, is to make sure that no one coming in will be told they can’t get the vaccine because there are no supplies left.

Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and Southwest Utah Public Health Department director Dr. David Blodgett speak to reporters regarding COVID-19 vaccinations, Cedar City, Utah, Jan. 12, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Sometimes, we just don’t have a firm number and we don’t want to register those we don’t have vaccine for,” Blodgett said, adding that there are approximately 35,000 people in the five counties over 70 and at this point, the department is receiving a fraction of that number in total doses per week. “The value of an appointment system is you know you’ll have a vaccine. This will be a long, protracted process. We can only give out as much vaccine as we have. It will be a fluid system because if we get more vaccine, we will make them available.”

On Thursday, the department used up its current supply of the vaccine but more is coming for next week. St. George Regional Hospital is also vaccinating local school staff members off excess supplies they have from their staff immunizations.

The Southern Utah area that has seen some residents come out against mask-wearing and other preventative measures against the virus are now seeing some of those behind those protests voicing their displeasure at vaccines as a way to stop the virus.

Blodgett said those people are entitled to their opinion, but defended the vaccine as the best hope to end the pandemic.

If I had that magic answer (to those against vaccines), I’d be making a lot more money than I do now,” Blodgett said. “The fact is, vaccination is the best solution, most cost-effective way we have to stop disease. The number one reason we have a longer life expectancy now is vaccines. We’re not dying of diseases like smallpox.” 

The online reservations for dates next week can be accessed at the links at the end of this article. Those without email addresses or unable to make reservations online can get help starting Tuesday at a specialized hotline at  435-986-2549 or they can dial 211.

The vaccine may be coming just in time, as a more contagious form of COVID-19, otherwise known as the “U.K. variant,” has arrived in Utah, the Utah Department of Health announced Friday.

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn speaks to the media via Zoom on Jan. 15, 2021 | Zoom screenshot, St. George News

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the mutated form of the virus is 70% more likely to be transmitted and infect others than the previous forms of the coronavirus.

Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, said on the positive side, the only thing that has changed with the new variant is how easily it spreads, meaning measures like wearing masks and physical distancing are going to be more important until vaccinations create a substantial drop in new infections.

“It just means for a few more months, we just need to buckle down with these recommendations. Our ICUs are already over capacity so we really need to be extra cautious until we get more people vaccinated,” Dunn said. “The key is it is still susceptible to the vaccine and can still be detected in tests. And we have also seen it is no more deadly than the other variants.”

The virus variant is also not any more transmittable on surfaces than other forms of the virus. The main form of transmission remains from the virus riding water droplets from the breath of one person to another.

The commutability on surfaces hasn’t changed. What has changed is how much easier it is to get you sick,” Dunn said. “You need less of it to get sick.

Photo illustration. | Photo by Biserka Stojanovic, iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

Dr. Kelly Oakeson, a bioinformatician at the Utah Public Health Laboratory that detected the variant, said masks capture the water droplets the virus rides on, stopping them from going beyond the person infected.

“You’ll be expelling more virus as you cough and breathe so will be even more important to wear masks,” Oakeson said.

The mutated virus was detected in an individual from Salt Lake County, but Dunn told St. George News people in Southern Utah should consider that the virus is already in their midst. Other health experts said it is likely the variant is much more widespread than a few individuals in Salt Lake City.

It’s likely this variant has been in Utah for a little bit. Our Utah laboratory still only looks at 10% of cases, so there’s a chance there’s variants we haven’t identified,” Dunn said. “Based on the quick spread of this variant, we need to be extra cautious.”

The virus variant, scientifically known as SARS-CoV-2. VUI – 202012-01, got its moniker from being detected first in the United Kingdom in September. By December, according to Bloomberg News, 60% of COVID-19 cases in London were caused by the new variant.

Even with Britain on full lockdown and 63 nations banning travelers from the U.K., the virus has still spread globally. The United States was not among the nations banning travelers from the British Isles.

Oakeson said they have been looking for variants of the virus from the start of the pandemic. “We take residual specimens and extract out genetic material. There are 17 mutations distinct to that lineage.

While the word “mutation” may be alarming to some, but Dunn said it is just Mother Nature doing its usual work.

“The virus that causes COVID has mutated every week. That’s what viruses do,” Dunn said. “This takes less effort to attach to your cells and makes it easier to infect you and transmit it to others.

‘We had some tough days’

According to the hospital’s medical director, the last two weeks at St. George Regional have been two of the toughest of the pandemic.

FILE: Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of  what was then Dixie Regional Medical Center, provides a tour inside the BLU-MED tent at the hospital. December 2020, St. George, Utah | Photo courtesy off Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Even while new infections continued to show signs of dropping locally Friday, it has never been busier at the hospital, which changed its name from Dixie Regional Medical Center on Jan. 1.

We had some tough days earlier this week. We had days where there were five COVID deaths a day, which are the highest death numbers we’ve seen,” Dr. Patrick Carroll, medical director of St. George Regional, said.

Our caregivers form an emotional bond with these patients. This has been emotionally and physically exhausting for them, but they are committed,” Carroll added. “If members of the community have friends working in the ICU or work with COVID patients, please support those individuals.”

At the start of this week, Carroll said the hospital hit record numbers again with just under 80 COVID-19 patients overall, including patients from outside Southern Utah still served by the regional hospital. Last week, the intensive care unit was at 170% capacity, and Carroll added there has been only one day thus far in 2021 that the ICU has not been at capacity.

FILE: A nurse in COVID-19 protective gear enters one of the rooms in the intensive care unit inside what was then Dixie Regional Medical Center. December 2020, St. George, Utah. | Photo courtesy off Intermountain Healthcare, St. George News

Though Carroll made clear that even at their busiest, the staff of the hospital stay professional. “It’s not chaos or people running up and down the hallway.”

As reported by St. George News earlier in the week, many of those undergoing surgeries right now at the hospital are being sent home to recuperate because of few to no rooms available for them to accommodate them at the hospital.

Carroll said the hospital has been deliberately only performing surgeries where it is felt it is safe to send the patient immediately home afterward. In fact, Carroll thinks like other lessons learned during the pandemic, this might be a method that sticks around after it is over.

“What we’ve learned is there are a number of surgeries where people can safely go home and get care through a family member or with home nurse,” Carroll said “Just as zoom has changed how we work, we’ve looked at and changed ways we do things at the hospital. This may decrease the cost of health care.”

FILE: A sign at the vaccinations area for caregivers in a BLU-MED tent at what was then Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, on Dec. 16, 2020. | Photo courtesy of Intermountain Healthcare

A second BLU-MED tent will be going up this weekend in the rear area of the hospital next to the first one that was erected in March designed to take excess capacity from the main hospital. However, Carroll said the tent will now be used as a larger area for those who have just received a vaccine shot in the other tent and are required to wait 15 minutes to make sure there are no adverse reactions to the shot.

Along with using excess supply to help the health department vaccinate school teachers and staff in the next week, the hospital is now a little over 20% through giving the second vaccine shot to staff that received the initial injections in December.

The first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine provides 50% protection from the virus a week after injection, with the second shot giving a person 95% protection.

Update 4:30 p.m., Further details were added with interviews with Southwest Utah Public Health Department Director Dr. David Blodgett and Dr. Patrick Carroll, the medical director of St. George Regional Hospital.

Getting the COVID-19 Vaccine

  • Those who can currently get the vaccine: Everyone ages 70 and over. K-12 teachers and staff, those that work in nonhospital health care facilities (those in clinics, pharmacies, dentists or other medical offices) and first responders, including law enforcement, firefighters and EMTs.
  • Must register in advance online for an appointment time. Walk-ins will not be accepted.
  • Must have a personal ID, employment ID and wear a short-sleeve shirt at appointment.
  • Vaccines are free of charge.

Washington County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department St. George office, 620 S 400 East, 2nd Floor Conference Room, St. George, 84770 and St. George Regional Hospital, 1380 E. Medical Center Dr., St. George, 84790.

When: Dates for those ages 70 and over will be released Monday. K-12 teachers and staff-only clinics Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from noon to 7 p.m.; at Southwest Utah Public Health and at St. George Regional on Friday (1:15 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.), Wednesday (3 p.m. to 5:15 p.m.), Jan. 22 (1 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.).

Register here for K-12 staff only clinics at Southwest Utah Public Health

Register here for K-12 staff only clinics at St. George Regional

Iron County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Cedar City office, 260 DL Sargent Dr., Cedar City, 84721.

When: Tuesday and Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; K-12 teachers and staff-only clinics Tuesday and Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

(All slots full) Click to register

(All slots full) Register here for K-12 staff only clinics

Kane County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Kanab office, 445 N. Main St., Kanab 84741.

When: Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

(All slots full) Click to register

Garfield County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Panguitch office, 601 Center St. Panguitch 84759.

When: Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

(All slots full) Click to register

Beaver County:

Where: Southwest Utah Public Health Department Beaver Office,  75 1175 North, Beaver 84713.

When: Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

(All slots full) Click to register

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.


Southern Utah coronavirus count (as of Jan. 15, 2020, seven-day average in parentheses)

Positive COVID-19 tests: 22,355 (199.1 new infections per day in seven days, falling since Jan. 14)

  • Washington County: 17,129 (135 per day, falling)
  • Iron County: 3,988 (53.6 per day, falling)
  • Kane County: 378 (3 per day, falling)
  • Garfield County: 378 (2.1 per day, falling)
  • Beaver County: 482 (5.2 per day, falling)

New infections for major Southern Utah cities (numbers released ahead of Southern Utah numbers):

  • St. George: 68 (falling)
  • Washington City: 23 (rising)
  • Hurricane/LaVerkin: 14 (rising)
  • Ivins City/Santa Clara: 11 (rising)
  • Cedar City: 40 (falling)

Deaths: 176 (2.9 per day, falling)

  • Washington County: 144 (1 new since last report: Long-term care female 65-84)
  • Iron County: 19 
  • Garfield County: 7 
  • Kane County: 3
  • Beaver County: 3 

Hospitalized: 63 (falling)

Active cases: 8,686 (rising)

Current Utah seven-day average: 2,391 (falling)

Vaccines distribution to Southern Utah data unavailable Friday

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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