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Governor's News Conference

March 19, 2021

"We also will be having our annual Earthquake Preparedness Shakeout event on April 15th. So that is coming up. You can go to shakeout.org/utah for more information." Governor Cox

NARRATOR:  PBS Utah presents The Governor's Monthly News Conference, an exchange between Utah reporters and Governor Spencer Cox.

GOVERNOR COX: Good morning, everyone. It's great to be with you again. It's hard to believe that it's been a month since we were last together, but we're excited to spend a little time talking about the issues of the day.

I'll start with a statement, just a reflection, first of all, on a year ago, and then I'll give an update and some announcements around vaccines, but it was a year ago today that Utah experienced a significant earthquake. And I know, especially for our media partners, that was a very interesting day for you. I'm sure you've had an opportunity to reflect on that. It was surreal, I think, for all of us. I have to admit I was in Fairview. We did not feel the earthquake in Fairview. So I did not get the ruckus experience that those along the Wasatch front, and especially in the Salt Lake Valley and Magna area felt that year ago. However, it is a perfect time for us to reflect back and to remind ourselves that we do live along a significant fault. And it is important for all of us to be prepared for earthquakes.

We do know that we have a 50% chance of having an even more significant earthquake, something north of 6.7, over the next 50 years. And as such, we would ask all families and people who live here in the State of Utah to be prepared. And you can do that by visiting a bereadyutah.gov. It's a great source for information for all kinds of potential tragedies, but especially earthquakes. We also will be having our annual Earthquake Preparedness Shakeout event on April 15th. So that is coming up. You can go to shakeout.org/utah for more information to practice at your place of employment and with your families. We will also be having a special town hall tonight at 7:30 PM on the Be Ready Utah YouTube channel. So again, you can go to bereadyutah.gov, or go to YouTube and search for Be Ready Utah. And at 7:30 PM tonight, we will have experts on there discussing the earthquake and preparedness.

So again, I know the beginnings of the pandemic, everything was shutting down, and then this earthquake hit, and we were all wondering what was next. We've avoided the locusts and some of the other potential things, but we have not avoided, and I will just mention this, we have not avoided drought. And yesterday I did make a declaration, an official drought declaration, encouraging Utahns to conserve water, to be careful as we head into the spring and summer months, knowing that we are starting at a deficit.

We have had a series of storms that have helped through February and March. That's good news, but, unfortunately, we still have a long-ways to go. We're only at about 70% of normal. And we were starting in a deficit. We had one of the driest falls in recorded history here in the state. The soil content, the water content of our soil is lower than we've seen in a long, long time. And that's impactful, because when the runoff does happen, it will soak into the soil instead of going into our reservoirs. And so, this is an important reminder. 100% of Utah is in drought right now, about 90% is in extreme drought, and about half the state is in the most extreme category of drought. So even one step above extreme drought. And that's why we're so concerned.

We continue to pray that and encourage people of faith to continue to do that, that we will have more storms. There are some in the forecast that we're we're grateful for, but are going to need Utahns to be especially careful this year.

Now I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about vaccinations. As you know, we've been very pleased with the rollout of vaccinations here in the state. The last time I checked, just a couple of days ago, we were sixth in the nation for getting vaccines into arms. We feel very, very positive about that. Last weekend, we surpassed an important milestone, with 1 million first and second doses being delivered into arms, being actually administered in this state. We know we need to do better, and we need more vaccine to make that happen.

We're in constant communication with The White House and with manufacturers. And we have good news that by the end of April, we will see some more increases in doses coming into the state, that last week of March, and leading into April with, especially, Johnson & Johnson doses seeing a significant increase in manufacturing. They're going from about 400,000 nationwide this week to about 4 million by the end of the month, which will be huge for our state. We will also continue to see increases with Moderna and Pfizer over the next few weeks. And that is, again, great news for Utah.

All of that being said, I was approached by our state Health Department, as well as our local health departments yesterday with a request. We have, next week, about 15% of our doses that are available have not been scheduled out yet. And so, we do have doses available in many health districts and many pharmacy partners throughout the state next week. There is also a concern is, as we start to see that softening, we always want to keep demand above availability. We've mentioned this many time. This is the embrace the chaos a little bit.

We want to make sure that there are no doses sitting on shelves, and there have not been to this point. We're grateful for that. We're also concerned about the equity piece about hard to reach populations in rural places, frontier areas of our state, and in some of our multicultural communities, where we've seen lower uptake, and getting those doses out. And the way to do that is that when we go into those places, we want to be able to vaccinate everyone. That's the best way to do that. That's the best way to increase the equitable distribution of vaccines throughout the state. And because of that, the local health departments as well as our state Health Department have asked me to open up vaccinations to everyone in the state earlier than we had planned on April 1st. 

So, we spent the evening in discussions, again, with our vaccination partners, and collectively made the decision, that as of next Wednesday, Wednesday of next week, we will authorize vaccinations for every adult in the state, that is everyone age 18 and over, and everyone 16 to 18 for Pfizer. Now, again, this is a significant movement in timing. It also means that there will not be vaccine available for everyone in the state next week. I want to be very clear about that. It may take a few weeks for you to be able to schedule an opportunity to get vaccinated. However, if there are, again, vaccination slots open. starting next Wednesday.

Now, I want to encourage people that aren't eligible right now. So, if you're over the age of 50, or if you have an underlying comorbidity, continue to schedule your vaccines. If you are younger than 50, please do not schedule those vaccination slots until next Wednesday, so starting next Wednesday. That will give our partners an opportunity to get their backend systems ready, to make the changes that need to be made to websites, to scheduling apps, so that they can be ready for a wave of people when they start to come in.

As always, I want to encourage people to please be patient. The phone lines might be jammed a little bit. Servers might be backed up. And, again, there won't be enough doses in the state for everyone for a few weeks, but we are in the right direction, that will allow us to fill up that 15% of slots next week, and slots beyond that that are not filled yet. And importantly, will allow us now to take our mobile vaccination clinics to go into these hard-to-reach areas or populations that may have a little more vaccine hesitancy than others, and really just go after every person and help slow the spread of this virus everywhere we need to be.

Now, let me just share a couple other things before we open it up to questions. I will say, one other thing. We mentioned this last week, but vaccine shopping, please, please, please, once you've scheduled a dose, don't find another schedule, another time slot, and take up that time slot to. That means someone won't get a dose that they desperately need. So, once you schedule your time slot, please stick to that time slot, and again, be patient. 

Also, we need people to remember to go to the same place to get their second dose that they got their first dose. And you have to get the same type of vaccine. So, if you've got Moderna for your first dose, you have to get Moderna for your second dose. We can't mix and match, and don't go to other places, because they order second doses of vaccines based on where you got your first dose. So, it's really important that you go to the same place to get those second doses. And I just want to remind people, there are lots of places to find appointments, but one other one that you can try right now, where there are several openings, getmyshot.utah.gov. So that's getmyshot.utah.gov. You can also go to coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine, and find a list of every provider in the state. The federal website vaccine finder is also available for people there. 

Now just want to share some numbers. Our seven- day rolling average for cases is the lowest it's been since September 13th. That was the last time we were under 500. We also just got new numbers today, a decline of cases versus this day last week of close to 90. So we are continuing to trend down after a little bit of a plateau last week. We're seeing better numbers again this week. Consumer confidence continues to go up, which means that the economy continues to recover, because people are feeling safe with case numbers coming down.

We also can have confidence that... And we want to encourage people, as I mentioned, last week to continue to wear mask until everyone gets vaccinated. And here are our vaccine updates for the week that just ended. 1,080,039 doses administered. A week ago, today, our total doses administered was about 936,000, a weekly increase of over 143,000 doses.

The best numbers of all 81% of adults, ages 70 and older, have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Our age 65 to 69 population is now right at 70%. I think 69 and change, which is great news. And our 50 to 64 year- old’s, now more than 40% of them have been vaccinated.

Now, we don't keep a list of comorbidities. We don't ask those questions when people get vaccinated, but we do know that a significant number of people under the age of 50 with co-morbidities have also been able to get vaccinated.

For a transmission index, I'm excited to announce that we have several more counties that have moved into the moderate transmission level. We only have five counties in high right now, 18 in moderate and six in low transmission. The new counties transitioning to moderate this week include Carbon, Summit, Duchesne. Excuse me, Carbon and Summit are moving to moderate, with Duchesne and San Juan County moving into low.

And I think that's all. That's a lot. But we have plenty of time for questions. So, with that, we'll go ahead and open it up.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: Governor, you're saying you're encouraging people to continue to wear masks until everyone is vaccinated. You have a bill that sets a deadline to lift the statewide mask mandate. Your own Department of Health and the Lieutenant Governor said you anticipate about 900,000 people will be vaccinated by April 10th with just one dose. Are you playing with fire if you sign the Endgame Bill?

GOVERNOR COX: Well, we're not playing with fire. We're playing with the legislature, which maybe there's not a difference. I don't know sometimes. But we, look, again, I've talked about this several times over the past couple of weeks. We are really happy with where things are right now. We are seeing case counts go down and vaccines go up. That's great news. We have a law that has been passed that will allow the mask mandate to go away, but only a portion of the mask mandate. We still have a mask mandate for large gatherings, which is where those super spreader events are likely to happen. And so it's really important to have masks in those areas. We also have masks still in schools, in that population where so much of the early spread was happening. And, of course, businesses still have the opportunity to require masks in their places of business. And we all have the ability to wear masks ourselves and we can do that. And that's okay.

I'm going to continue to wear a mask until I'm fully vaccinated, and hopeful that everybody else gets an opportunity. I have not vaccinated yet. I anticipate that I will get vaccinated once we lowered the age limit starting next week. Really looking forward to that. It's something that we've been waiting for. And so we can still keep people safe. And we've seen that in other states. We've seen it in states that, 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 smarter than we give them credit for. And we give them good data, good information. And if they know that there is still spread happening, they know that people haven't been vaccinated yet, maybe they haven't been vaccinated yet, that they will still wear masks. And so we'll continue to encourage people to wear a mask and to follow the health guidance, rather than a law that forces them to do that. 

REPORTER: Can counties mask mandates under the bill, if they want to?

GOVERNOR COX: I should know the answer to that. I believe that it does allow an opportunity. I shouldn't answer without knowing for sure. Let me check that and make sure and get back to you. 

LINDSAY WHITEHURST, ASOCIATED PRESS:  Speaking of vetos, Governor, you've got a number of bills still on your desk. One of them that's attracted some attention is about mandated porn filters for devices. Do you have a sense yet if that's something you'll sign or veto?

GOVERNOR COX: So that is on our list to review starting Monday. We just go through these in a kind of an organized fashion. So we have not talked about that bill with our team yet. All of that being said, there is some misreporting that's been happening at the national level on this, not our local partners. You guys have all been great. This bill really does nothing right now. And I think it's important to point that out. It only does something if several other states pass similar legislation, and I don't know if that's likely to happen or not.

What I do know is that when we do talk to parents, it's very difficult for parents right now to... And iPhones, I have to say, are the worst when it comes to parental filters. I had a friend the other day, who said, you know, one of his kids had an Android, another one had an iPhone, it took about five minutes to set up the parental controls on the Android, and it took like five hours on the iPhone. And this is somebody who understands tech really, really well. And so I think we can do better. And I do think that pornography is a problem, especially with younger and younger people, and what it does to their brains when they don't have a real ability to understand and to make those choices.

So really we want to empower parents. I'll take a hard look at the bill and see what it does. If nothing else, it sends an important message, I think, to people, that we need to do better there. And then we'll see what other states do.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: What about the social media moderation bill? Are you looking at that one?

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah. Yeah. That's also on our list to talk about. We've had a lot of pushback on that bill. I think we all have concerns with social media right now. And as I've talked to the sponsor, as we talked to the President of the Senate, who was very involved with that bill, they're all concerned. And I don't know that they have the same concerns that maybe this bill has been kind of portrayed as.

This isn't we're worried that Donald Trump was kicked off of Twitter Bill. It's more we're worried about the way that social media is, the toxicity that's happening around social media, and how we moderate that in positive ways, as opposed to just algorithms, and then making sure, again, that people have the ability to share their thoughts, even if they are unpopular in a way that is consistent with the First Amendment. Now, I recognize that these companies are private companies and they are not controlled by the First Amendment. And so that's part of the conversation that's happening out there. 

There's some arguments over whether or not the bill is constitutional or not. And so I have concerns with the bill and I have concerns with social media, and we're continuing to have those conversations about how to solve this the right way.

MICHAEL LOCKLEAR, KUTV: I had a follow up on the mask mandate and the change there. Most lawmakers are 50 plus, they've had a chance to get the vaccine, so any increased risk won't really affect them as much. For the Utahns who have been patient, who've done what you've asked, who have not cut in line, I'm sure many of them would rather no maskless people be running around. Lifting the mandate will increase the number of maskless people who are out there. What's the upside to that? And what's your message to people who have been patient? 

GOVERNOR COX: Well, my message is, "Get vaccinated," because starting next Wednesday, again, vaccines will be open to everyone. And we're speeding that timeline up. Again, we'll be getting additional doses, and helping people get vaccinated as quickly as possible. As to the upside, you'll have to ask the legislature about that. I don't know that there is much upside at all. Again, this is not what we wanted. I've been critical of it from the beginning. We had a timeline that we set out. The legislature disagreed with that. We negotiated. We got as many days as we could. And so that's where we are.

What I will say, though, is, the good news for everyone is, again, case counts are really, really low, and masks have improved. We now know how to protect ourselves with masks. And so we're all going to have to make those decisions. And we've seen that. We've seen, you know, again, think about the places where you're going to go, where you will be connected to lots of people that could put you at higher risk, right?

So we still have a mask mandate for those gatherings of 50 plus, which I think is really important. I think, Harmons yesterday mentioned that they're going to continue to require mask, which is absolutely their right, and people need to respect that, and they should, and wear a mask. We will be encouraging people to continue to wear masks. And so, again, I think we're probably making a bigger deal of this than the science shows that it will be, because, again, I do believe, I really do believe that lots of people, most people will still continue to wear a mask, even after that mandate goes away.

BEN WINSLOW, FOX-13: So why not veto it, and make them own their vote then? If you're that concerned about it.

GOVERNOR COX: Look, that's a great question. and it's still a possibility. But when I negotiate with the legislature, right, when I engage in those conversations, and this is the practical piece that I think a lot of people don't understand of the sausage making, right? When we have a choice, every time, we can just say, hey, we're going to veto that bill, and we're not going to negotiate. But when I involve myself in the negotiations, then I have to do what I believe is best for the state, and I have to get as much as I can.

We believed that they had the votes to override a veto for an immediate end to masks. I believe that wholeheartedly. Now, some people may disagree with me and that's fine. But in those conversations, once I engaged, I had to say, "Look, we need more time." And so we started negotiating, and the spot we got to was April 10th, and if they would get to April 10th, buying us an extra month, then I wouldn't veto the bill. And so I felt like that was the best thing to do. I got an extra month. And so I can't tell them, "Hey, I'm going negotiate and then turn around and veto your bill. 

That's how you lose the respect of the legislature, and that's not how I operate. When I work with them and I work closely with them, and I try to get the best option for the State of Utah, that's how the negotiation works.

Lawmaking isn't pretty. It's difficult. There are always give and takes, and those are decisions we had to make, but we felt comfortable, even Public Health, by the way, while this is not what they wanted, by seeing case numbers coming down, the weather's warming up, people are outside more, knowing that we're vaccinating 25,000 people every day, new people, then we feel more comfortable with where we're going to go.

Now time will tell. And again, I've said this before, if we see this turnaround and case numbers start going up significantly, or new variants come in, and there are problems we can call the legislature back into session, and say, "Hey, we have a new problem. You've wanted to be a part of this from the very beginning." And that's the other thing I think people don't realize, is governors across the country have been using the legislature's authority to do these types of things.

This really is a legislative decision. We get emergency powers, and emergency powers are the ability of the executive to act like a legislature. That's what emergency powers do. I get to act like the legislature when I declare an emergency. That's very dangerous, and it should be used very rarely. And we've never had a situation in any of our lifetimes where we've had emergencies that lasted this long. And so it's important to get the legislature involved, and I've committed to that, and I've worked with legislative leadership, and so we're going to keep them involved, and they can help with these decisions that are part of their constitutional authority.

RAEANN CHRISTENSEN, PBS UTAH: Any quick follow-ups in the studio? Okay, let's go to a quick remote reporter. We have Sonja Hutson with KUER. Go ahead.

SONJA HUSON, KUER: Hi, Governor. You touched on this a little bit in your opening remarks, but there is a disproportionately lower rate of vaccinations for racial minorities in Utah. And I know that the state put out a vaccine equity plan earlier this month, and I'm wondering if you can talk about what part of that plan has been implemented, what still needs to be done, and if you've seen any improvement in the equity of vaccine rollout.

GOVERNOR COX: Yeah. Thank you, Sonja. It is something that we're deeply concerned about, and this is not just a Utah thing. This is true across the country. And so we have implemented the entire plan with our local health districts. They are all working on this, and that's one of the reasons, again, that they asked to open this up to everyone, because it will significantly help them with the equity piece of this. And so we're just really excited. They're chomping at the bit, ready to go, but having to pick and choose which people in that population that they're able to vaccinate, they said has made it very difficult for them.

So now what they'll be able to do is set aside doses specifically for those populations, go in with our mobile clinics, with different providers who, again, have close contacts, who are trusted providers in those areas, and just go to town, vaccinating as many people as possible.

We really think that will help close the gap. And by the way, this isn't just equity for the sake of equity, which is important. But as we look at the numbers, in order for us to hit something close to herd immunity, we have to reach these populations in a significant way. It's not enough to just do 70% of the general population, but have these pockets where we're at 30% or 40%. We have to do better.

So we are committed. We're going in and we're going in with everything we have to close that delta. Thank you. Okay.

RAEANN CHRISTENSEN, PBS UTAH: That's all the time we have for our television broadcast. So join us back here for the Governor's Monthly News Conference next month.

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