Shereyah Barbera, Annice Sterling, and Magdelena Litwinczuk, ICU nurses from Northwell Health, a New York hospital chain, who will support ICU teams at Intermountain Healthcare in Utah, link arms at a news conference in Murray, Utah on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah's health department on Thursday placed the state's first order for coronavirus vaccines that could arrive as early as mid-December.

Doses will be shipped directly to hospitals in Utah as soon as the Food and Drug Administration issues its final approvals, the agency posted on Twitter. Health officials did not provide any additional information.

The first doses in Utah will go to front-line workers such as doctors and nurses in emergency departments, urgent care facilities and COVID-19 units, as well as housekeeping workers, said Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer, chief of infection prevention at the University of Utah Health hospital.

“It’s just so incredibly important to make sure that we keep our health care systems intact and able to care for the most vulnerable in our populations,” Mayer told reporters.

Public health experts have warned that if people do not follow masking and social distancing guidance, COVID-19 hospitalizations will further overwhelm the state’s already strained healthcare system.

In Utah, 1 in 173 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 over the past week and the state is ranked eighth in the country for new cases per capita, according to data from Johns Hopkins.

Five hospitals that have been treating the highest number of COVID-19 in the state will be the first to receive the vaccine: University of Utah Health, Intermountain Medical Center, LDS Hospital, Dixie Regional Medical Center and Utah Valley Regional Hospital.

Each is expected to receive several thousand doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, Mayer said. Hospital leaders from the university and the Intermountain Healthcare hospital network did not say precisely how many doses each hospital will receive.

State health officials have said they hope an additional 30 hospitals will be prepared to receive the vaccine about two weeks after the initial five hospitals. The Pfizer vaccine must be transported and stored at extremely cold temperatures.

Additional doses will then likely be available in February and March for hospital workers who were not initially vaccinated. Essential workers — including police officers, firefighters and teachers — who have a high risk of contracting COVID-19 in their occupations will also be prioritized.

Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, declined to impose any additional public health virus prevention restrictions as cases began to climb in Utah following the Thanksgiving holiday but continued stressing the importance of mask wearing and social distancing. He lauded the vaccines’ early success rates so far and said “the good news for us is that there is help and hope on the way.”

There were 597 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in Utah on Thursday, and referral center ICU beds reached 88.8% occupancy statewide, according to state data.

There have been more than 206,000 reported virus cases in Utah and 917 known deaths related to the virus, according to state data.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.


Eppolito is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.