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State Announces New Online Contact Tracing And COVID-19 Vaccination By January For Utah Teachers

A photo of Gov. Gary Herbert at the COVID-19 press conference.
Spenser Heaps
Deseret News
Utah is preparing to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine later this month and state leaders are making changes to who gets vaccinated first.

As Utah prepares to receive its first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday the state has changed its vaccination plan to give teachers higher priority than originally planned. State officials also said that some people who test positive for the virus will be contacted by text — instead of a phone call— to complete contact tracing.

Teacher Vaccinations

Health officials said last month teachers and school staff would be allowed to get a COVID-19 vaccine around February or March, after health care workers and long-term care facility staff.

Now, teachers will be eligible for the vaccine during the same distribution phase as long-term care facility staff and some health care workers, but after workers at five major hospitals receive it.

Herbert estimated teachers should be able to get vaccinated by the end of December or early January.

“We're trying to make sure we have as safe an environment for our students and our teachers as we can so they can continue to teach in class,” Herbert said. “This will help minimize disruption for families at home. And we hope to minimize the ping pong effect that's happening, with going to online ... or a combination of both [online and in class] or back and forth.”

The Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, released a statement following the announcement saying they appreciated that teachers were going to get higher priority.

“Teachers and school staff risk their health each day by being in school face-to-face with students,” UEA President Heidi Matthews said. “It is critical those dedicated public school employees who elect to receive the vaccine, many of whom are at-risk themselves, have convenient access as soon as feasibly possible.”

But the Utah Health Care Association, which represents long term care facilities in the state, was skeptical about the move.

“While we applaud the state for moving teachers up in prioritization from their previous level, we hope that this change does not impact the amount of doses the LTC facilities will be allocated to vaccinate their staff and residents,” Allison Spangler, UHCA’s Membership Services Director, said in a statement.

“The frontline workers in LTC are caring for the most vulnerable population and long-term care facilities will not be able to return to normal until they can receive the vaccine,” she said.

Jenny Johnson, a Utah Department of Health spokeswoman, said it’s hard to tell now what kind of impact the change will have on supplies for long-term care facilities, because it’s not clear exactly how many doses the state will receive early next year.

“Somebody who works in long-term care is going to get this vaccine probably before school staff will because of the high-risk environment,” Johnson said. “But again, all of that is dependent on how much vaccine we get and when and how many other vaccines become available in that time.”

According to Herbert, the state will get 154,600 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of December. He said Utah will receive another 154,600 Pfizer doses by the end of January, as well as a number of Moderna vaccine doses proportionate to the state’s population.

Online Contact Tracing

Starting Friday, some Utahns who test positive for COVID-19 will get a text rather than a phone call from a contact tracer.

The text will include a link to a secure online form, which will ask the person the same questions a contact tracer would ask over the phone, like who they’ve been around and for how long.

It will also include a phone number the person can call if they prefer to do contact tracing over the phone.

State Medical Examiner Nearing Capacity

The increase in COVID-19 deaths is creating a capacity problem at the state medical examiner’s office.

“They are working seven days a week trying to get autopsies done as quickly as possible for both closure of the families, but also surveillance and public health purposes as well,” state epidemiologist Angela Dunn said. “We don't expect that to slow down. I mean, these deaths, like I said before, are a direct result of our surge in November.”

The medical examiner’s office purchased a refrigerated trailer during the spring to use to store bodies awaiting an autopsy should their normal storage fill up. The trailer has not been used yet, but it is parked outside the office in Taylorsville and ready to use when necessary.

The Utah Department of Health reported 3,401 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday. There are 554 people currently hospitalized. Twenty-one more people have died and 1,016 total people have passed away since the beginning of the outbreak.

“1,016 deaths due to COVID in Utah is tragic,” Dunn said. “We can prevent additional deaths in Utah by continuing to wear our masks, staying home when we're ill and limiting our close contacts to our household members as much as possible.”

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER.
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