Utah Senate Health and Human Services Committee holds interim meeting

On Nov. 18, the Utah Senate Health and Human Services Committee held an interim meeting to discuss pertinent committee business. Here are a few important topics they discussed:

COVID-19: An Update

State epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn reported that Utah is experiencing over 3,000 new cases every day and there is a 24% positivity rate in cases. The state is exceeding hospital capacity; 98% of ICU beds in referral hospitals (hospitals that take COVID patients in their ICU) are currently occupied, and non-referral hospitalizations are at 87% capacity. The University of Utah has a unit that is over 100% full.

 

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“This spread is throughout all of our jurisdictions. It is not one specific population, it is not one specific geography or one setting. It truly is community-wide and state-wide,” said Dunn.

This significant surge emphasizes the urgency of lowering Utah’s case count, she explained. She added there is a 14 day average of over 200 new cases per 100,000 in every single county in Utah.

The committee also discussed COVID-19 safety ahead of Thanksgiving. Interim Manager Rich Saunders discussed their recommendations for staying safe during the upcoming holiday.

“We’re trying to say, with a very clear voice, that the safest Thanksgiving gathering is with those you live with in your own home,” said Saunders.

He also listed the committee’s safety recommendations for people who do choose to travel for Thanksgiving. These include keeping gathering’s small, keeping windows open, eating outside, and asking guests to wear masks.

Over 20,000 COVID-19 tests are performed in Utah per day, according to the Utah DOH Testing Manager Nathan Checketts. He said that testing availability is increasing thanks to testing partners such as Intermountain. The DOH has also validated two saliva-based PCR tests and they will soon be implemented.

Mental Health Access

Sen. Luz Escamilla is sponsoring draft legislation that amends state mental health services. According to Escamilla, the bill will increase the availability of mental health services by providing more access to telehealth and ensuring reimbursement for mental health professionals.

“This is in response, of course, to the surge of need for mental health in the middle of the pandemic. There is a need for mental health providers. This is not new, and it’s not only Utah but it’s across the nation. Certainly in Utah accessing neuropsychologists or neuropsychiatrists is becoming harder,” said Escamilla.

The committee unanimously voted to favorably recommend this bill.

Medical Cannabis: Reports

Dr. Perry Fine, Chair of the Cannabinoid Product Board (CPB), presented the board’s 2020 Annual Report. The report included the publication of on-line guidance documents for medical cannabis products sold in Utah. It also stated that the CPB was approved to review studies outside of the U.S. on medical cannabis use. 

The report states that the CPB will continue to review research regarding risks and benefits of medical cannabis/cannabinoid use and invite experts to assist them in their duties. The CPB will continue meeting with the Utah Department of Health and Center for Medical Cannabis to develop resources and guidelines for medical professionals.

Dr. Angelo Peter Giardino, Vice-Chair of the Compassionate Use Board, presented some of the board’s findings. The board has met monthly since March and received 134 petitions for medicinal cannabis use, of which 107 were approved. He described some of their findings on cannabis use for certain medical conditions.

“The medical conditions that were not specified in the Utah Cannabis Act but which were approved by the Compassionate Use Board include anxiety, sleep disorder, Parkinson’s disease, depression, anorexia, postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), and intellectual disability,” Giardino said.

Medical Cannabis: Legislation

Sen. Evan Vickers talked about planned amendments to Utah’s current cannabis statutes. He said he is aware of at least four upcoming bills relating to medical cannabis.

Vickers mentioned several changes including ensuring signage is professional for medical dispensaries, modifying advertising methods, implementing dosing guidelines, and prohibiting patients from tampering with medication labels. 

He discussed the Qualified Medical Practitioner Program, which manages physicians who prescribe their patients cannabis products. Physicians can use this program to become certified to recommend medical cannabis to patients. He plans to recommend to the legislature that physicians who are not qualified medical providers should be able to recommend up to 15 patients to pharmacies to be treated with medical cannabis.

Vickers and Escamilla both discussed Escamilla’s bill regarding consumer protection for medical cannabis.

“Getting the assistance of professional pharmacists who are trained on this specific product would just make life easier, and there would be less predatory practices of charging high amounts of money for patients,” explained Esamilla. “This doesn’t solve all of the problems but it’s certainly an avenue to get us to a place where more doctors feel comfortable making those recommendations.”