It’s been about two weeks since the Utah Department of Health and Human Services placed the state’s first order for the new COVID-19 vaccine from the federal government, but so far, nothing’s been received.
Now that the COVID-19 vaccine has been commercialized, the state only orders shots for Utahns who don’t have health insurance that will be available primarily through local health departments.
Thanks to the same vaccine supply issues faced by pharmacies and other health care providers, the state’s order isn’t expected to be filled until sometime next month, said Rich Lakin, immunization director for the state health and human services department.
“We have ordered 2,500 to start and none have been delivered at this point. I think they will start to arrive the first and second week of October,” Lakin said, adding he’s “not too happy with the federal government right now.”
The updated COVID-19 shots that target a recently circulating version of the virus are now being distributed like other vaccines, with doses for insured patients no longer coming from the federal government through the state.
“We really don’t want it to be the government’s responsibility,” Lakin said of the change that followed the end of the national pandemic emergency. “We want to have it really be privatized and people can purchase it and bill insurance as their patients come in.”
The shots received federal approval in mid-September for everyone 6 months and older amid a rise in COVID-19 around the country and in Utah. But the rollout of the latest vaccine has been bumpy, thanks to the delays.
Like the state, some health care providers like Intermountain Health are still waiting to see the shots. And even those who’ve gotten the vaccine have had to turn away patients due to their limited supply running out.
Lakin blamed the vaccine manufacturers.
“It’s a Pfizer, Moderna issue. It’s on their end. So any pharmacy, clinic, private physician, state health department, local health department, whatever, it’s all going to be delayed somewhat so it’s not coming in as fast as we anticipated,” he said.
There might be some production issues, the vaccine manufacturers just may not be able to keep up with demand, Lakin said.
The Salt Lake County Health Department’s website says its supply of the new COVID-19 vaccine is expected during the last week of September, but appointments for the shots won’t be made until there’s an exact date for their arrival.
Besides asking the state for 3,300 doses of vaccine for uninsured patients, the county health department has also directly ordered 6,000 “private pay” shots for those with insurance or willing to cover the cost out-of-pocket, spokesman Nicholas Rupp said.
Some scaled-down doses for younger children have shown up, but the plan is to wait to start vaccinations “until we have all of the doses available, both for private pay and uninsured,” Rupp said.
“We don’t think it’s equitable to offer one and not the other, particularly if it were our private pay that were in and not for the uninsured. That’s not OK. People who are uninsured deserve equal access to the vaccine as people who have insurance,” he said.
But if the state-ordered vaccine ends up taking too long to arrive, Rupp said the county health department may borrow from their supply of “private pay” doses to provide vaccinations to those without insurance.
“We don’t want to have a delay unnecessarily. So if we need to juggle inventory and just keep a very good accounting, that’s what we’ll do,” he said, noting it “complicates audits and all of that. But we do it when we need to, to meet the need.”
Rupp said the county health department has been hearing from “a pocket of folks that are really interested” in getting the latest shots. The last time an updated COVID-19 vaccine was offered was just over a year ago.
But that dose, a bivalent booster because it targeted the original strain as well as versions of the omicron variant, hasn’t been popular. Only a handful of states report more than 25% of their population are up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations; in Utah, less than 16% are.
Lakin said a new TV commercial for Pfizer’s updated COVID-19 vaccine featuring the Kansas City Chiefs’ Travis Kelce could make a difference, now that Kelce is getting attention for dating pop superstar Taylor Swift.
“If Kelce and Taylor Swift can’t convince anybody, then,” he trailed off, laughing. “Hopefully they listen.”