SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Thursday’s weekly COVID-19 press conference with Governor Gary Herbert and state health officials brought mostly an optimistic outlook on Utah’s progress against the virus. The topics addressed included the CDC sending out a COVID-19 vaccine in the fall and the approval of Salt Lake City’s request to move from the orange to yellow phase.
This week, governors across the country received an e-mail from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stating that they could expect a vaccine coming in the fall. The letter said the CDC is quickly preparing to distribute a large number of vaccines – hundreds of millions of doses.
The agencies who will receive these vaccines are state and local health departments, medical facilities, doctor offices, and other vaccine providers. In order to tackle this big task, they’ve hired a corporation called McKesson to open new distribution centers.
Tom Hudachko with the Utah Department of Health told ABC4 News that the CDC will determine who will be the first to receive the vaccine. But it will likely be those who are most at-risk, such as people with underlying health conditions and healthcare works.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said receiving and distributing a large amount of vaccines is something they’ve been preparing for months.
“We’re taking a lot of lessons learned from H1N1 and so is the federal government. The distribution chain will likely be a mix of public health, healthcare systems, and pharmacies working together to make sure that the most amount of people have access to the vaccine when it does become available,” she said.
Gov. Herbert said he spoke to the FDA, who assured him that even though they are working quickly, they won’t compromise the quality of the vaccines.
“So what would normally take two or three years, they’re going to be doing in one year. He emphasized too that we’re not doing anything that’s going to, in fact, make it unsafe or that we’re cutting corners as far as the necessary protocols and clinical trials,” he said.
Dr. Dunn briefed the public about Utah’s new COVID-19 numbers with 504 new cases and 4 new deaths. She talked about the upcoming flu season and gave a reminder that COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu, both in its mortality and long-term effects.
Governor Herbert said Utah is entering a new chapter, facing unique challenges going forward as we move into fall and winter. He points out that as the weather gets cooler, Utahns will be doing more things indoors, posing a new challenge to keep the infection rate down.
The Governor confirmed he would approve Salt Lake City’s request to move from the orange to yellow phase of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan, acknowledging that the city had been successful in bringing down their case counts over the past month.
Since there is a required 24-hour notice to the state legislature before a restriction phase can be modified, Gov. Herbert said Salt Lake City will officially move to the yellow phase on Friday at 10 a.m.
“Let me again reemphasize moving from orange to yellow just means less restrictions, not less risk. As we move this opportunity to yellow, it gives more flexibility for businesses and overall, to help keep the economy going,” said Gov. Herbert.
State officials said Utahns still need to wear their masks and maintain six feet of social distancing from others. Sevier County will also make a move in restriction levels, but from yellow to green. It becomes the 11th county in the state to move to the green phase.
Gov. Herbert noted Utah’s unemployment rate is the lowest in the country at 4.5 percent and said the state was recovering quicker than any other economy in the nation. He said Utah is being used as a model and that our hospitals are in good shape with less that eight percent being patients of COVID-19.
Referencing a call he had with Vice President Mike Pense, Gov. Herbert said they would be receiving more money for rapid antigen testing.
“The Department of Health and Human Services is going to ship 150 million of these new antigen tests. They are newer. They’re easier. You take a swab and put it on a piece of paper and they’re quicker. You can have the results in 15 minutes,” he said.
Tammy Pyfer, the Governor’s education advisor said three schools have already altered their plans because of positive COVID-19 cases. She said administrators understand that being flexible puts a burden on parents, teachers, administrators, and students. But she thanked Utahns for their patience and cooperation.
Dr. Erik Christensen with the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner addressed rumors about a number of deaths being incorrectly labeled with COVID-19 as the cause. He acknowledged that this is a valid concern given that those are most severely impacted by COVID-19 are usually those of older age or those with underlying health conditions. But he emphasized that each case is thoroughly reviewed.
He explained that when deaths are reported to their office, they will then review the history of events that led up to this. They also look at the medical history including positive COVID-19 test results and possible exposure to those who are infected. Those records come from hospitals, long-term healthcare facilities, hospice, and even law enforcement if necessary.
Dr. Christensen said if all of the information is consistent, then they will rule the cause of death as COVID-19.
“In those cases where we determine that what was originally reported as a COVID death is, in fact, not a COVID death, we change that death certificate to remove COVID-19 as the cause. That has happened, thus far, about one percent of the deaths that have been reported to us,” he said.
Even if the person tested positive for COVID-19, but died from another non-COVID reason such as trauma or drug intoxication, Dr. Christensen said they would not be counted as a COVID death, only as a COVID-positive case.