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How Idaho Public Health Districts Are Bringing Vaccines To Rural Communities

A South Central Public Health District Employee prepares doses of the Pfizer vaccine for a clinic in Buhl.
Rachel Cohen/ Boise State Public Radio
A South Central Public Health District employee prepares doses of the Pfizer vaccine for a clinic in Buhl.

In an old school gymnasium in a rural part of Twin Falls County, people are waiting for their turn to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The South Central Public Health District is here in Buhl, a city with a population less than 5,000, for two hours Thursday evening, giving vaccines to anyone who shows up.

“The symptoms don’t mean you’re contagious, it just means your body’s getting tricked like it should,” a health district employee said she explains to the patients. Then she sends them to the bleachers to wait for 15 minutes in case they have a bad reaction.

The health district is hosting pop-up clinics every week in April at community gathering spots in places like Jerome, Dietrich and Burley.

Brianna Bodily, the public information officer for the health district, said they’re targeting people who might have a hard time accessing a vaccination opportunity otherwise.

"These clinics are set up to help get vaccines to people who already have obstacles already in place before this pandemic," she said.

A sign for a vaccine clinic in Buhl
Rachel Cohen
A sign outside an old gymnasium in Buhl highlights an open vaccine clinic.

It’s been two weeks since all adults in Idaho became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Though there have been smaller efforts to bring doses to underserved communities all along, now state health officials say the rollout is in a new phase. The goal is bringing vaccines to people.

Health districts are getting creative to reach people who might've fallen through the cracks. They've hosted clinics at a farm in Grace, Idaho, at a community center in Salmon and even at a shopping mall in Idaho Falls.

“We came because it was convenient and we wanted the vaccine done and they were just able to bring it to us," said Anita Tatge of Buhl who came to the clinic at the old school gymnasium last week.

Tatge and her husband Brian heard about it through a flier sent home with their son from school. They weren't always sure they were going to get the vaccine.

“I was a little apprehensive just seeing how fast it rolled out, but I think seeing more people get it gave us some confidence that we were going to be okay if we got it too and it just seems like the socially responsible thing to do," she said.

Tatge wasn’t able to make it to a clinic where she works at the College of Southern Idaho. But this one was on the way home from work and didn’t require an appointment.

Bodily of the health district said meeting people where they are has been successful.

“We’ve done several clinics in-house that are specifically meant for either refugees or residents who only speak Spanish, and that has been moderately effective. What has been more effective is to bring the vaccine to our residents,” she said.

But convincing people to come through the door is a big challenge. Maria Tapia, a customer service representative at the health district, is a big part of that.

Throughout the pandemic, she's answered the Spanish-speaking population's questions about COVID-19.

Maria Tapia works at the vaccine clinic in Buhl, translating the vaccination information into Spanish.
Rachel Cohen
Maria Tapia works at the vaccine clinic in Buhl, translating the vaccination information into Spanish.

Now she helps with outreach before the public clinics. The health district’s first pop-up clinic was at her Catholic church in Jerome. So she spoke to the congregation and invited her community to attend.

“It’s [closer] to home. They feel more comfortable, more safe, they know people there. I am a member there, as well," Tapia said. "To me, it's exciting to see our Hispanic community open up and to see that it's nothing to be afraid of."

The health district also called a bunch of community leaders and local employers, including dairy farms, letting them know about the clinic. One hundred and thirty people were vaccinated at the church in Jerome that week.

That clinic gave out the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine. But the one in Buhl happened after that vaccine was put on hold, so now there’s the added challenge of getting people to come back in three weeks for their second Pfizer dose.

Getting people to show up in the first place is still tough. In one survey among Idahoans, 40% of respondents said they either would never get the vaccine or they weren’t sure, and vaccination rates in the state's rural counties are lagging.

The Tatges were surprised the clinic in Buhl wasn’t busier.

“I would’ve like to see more people from my community participate in this," Anita said.

"Dismal turnout at best,” Brian added.

The health district said 27 people ended up getting vaccinated at the Buhl clinic, and they were expecting as many as 100. The Tatges said they hope people step up at some point to help get things back to normal.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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