Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced Thursday that the state will open up COVID-19 vaccine distribution to every Utahn 16 and older next Wednesday.
The state had previously anticipated that vaccines would be available to all adults on April 1, but Cox said the decision to open up eligibility sooner came as around 15% of of appointments available for next week had not yet been filled.
“As we start to see that softening, we always want to keep demand above availability,” Cox said Thursday during his monthly news conference with PBS Utah. “We want to make sure that there are no doses sitting on shelves and there have not been to this point.”
Opening shots up to everyone 16 and over will also help vaccine providers better reach those in rural areas and in vulnerable communities, he said.
Within those hard-to-reach areas and communities, “when we go into those places, we want to be able to vaccinate everyone,” Cox said. “That’s the best way to increase the equitable distribution of vaccines throughout the state.”
Cox cautioned that there will “not be vaccine available for everyone in the state” next week and urged people to exercise patience, noting that phone lines may back up. He also said people should not schedule their vaccine slots until next Wednesday, so the local health departments and vaccine distribution partners can get their systems ready for a wave of people requesting appointments.
The Salt Lake County Health Department announced on Twitter Thursday that it would begin taking appointments sooner, on Monday, for dates after April 4.
Vaccines are currently available to Utahns age 50 and older and to those 16 and older with certain preexisting health conditions. The federal Food and Drug Administration has approved the Pfizer vaccine for anyone 16 or older. Anyone 18 or older can get the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson versions.
Cox said Thursday that people who are currently eligible should schedule their vaccines now and also noted that people should go back to the same place they got their first dose when they receive their second and make sure they get the same vaccine brand.
Also on Thursday, Cox announced that several new counties were moving into lower transmission categories, as daily case counts and weekly positivity rates have declined in recent weeks. Carbon and Summit counties moved to the “moderate” category this week, while Duchesne and Summit counties moved into the “low” transmission level.
Amid concerns about the impact more contagious coronavirus variants could have on the state’s progress, Cox encouraged people who aren’t vaccinated to continue wearing masks, even after the statewide mandate requiring face coverings is set to expire April 10.
“We can still keep people safe,” he said. “We’ve seen it in states quite frankly that don’t have mask mandates. People are still wearing masks at similar rates, regardless of whether a state has a mask mandate or not. And we’ve seen from our own numbers as we’ve done some polling throughout the state that people listen. People are people are smarter than we give them credit for.”
If cases do begin to rise with variants, he said the Legislature could come back into session to address that.
As it stands, Cox reiterated that the bill lawmakers approved won’t do away with all mask requirements, which will still be in effect in high-risk gatherings of 50 people or more and in schools. And he said businesses are allowed to enforce mask mandates, something Harmon’s Grocery Store announced Wednesday that it would do.
The governor said he wasn’t sure whether counties could establish their own face covering requirements under the bill.
The Salt Lake Tribune will update this report