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Without Enough To Go Around, Some Idaho COVID-19 Vaccine Providers Limiting Access

Damian Dovarganes
AP Images

As of Feb. 2, CDC data show Idaho ranks last among U.S. states in both COVID-19 vaccination distribution and administration per capita.

State Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen Tuesday explained why Idaho has more than 100,000 unadministered doses in storage.

“Of those, 22,000 [are] first doses,” Jeppesen said during a conference call with media. “That's actually less than a week's worth of inventory. Next is second doses. We have [approximately] 47,500 second doses in the states and that's higher than we were expecting.”

Second doses are shipped a week early, so some vaccine sitting idle isn’t surprising. But Jeppesen said state officials are working to understand why that number is so large.

Remaining unadministered doses, about 30,000 he said, are tied to the federal partnership with Walgreens and CVS Pharmacies and earmarked for longterm care facilities. Idaho pulled back about 12,000 of those doses this week as distribution was slower than expected through the partnership.

Frustration with the lack of available vaccine has boiled over this week as the state’s 65-and-older crowd now qualifies for the vaccine but has run into roadblocks. Limited doses provided to the state means not every medical provider gets the vaccine, and not every provider is administering what they are allocated by local health districts in the same way.

St. Luke’s, the largest hospital system in the state, asks people to wait to schedule unless they are over 80 or have a high-risk health condition. Appointments were booked solid within minutes of becoming available to people 65 or older Monday. St. Alphonsus hospitals had no appointments available, and was forced to cancel a week's worth of previously scheduled vaccinations between Feb. 1-8, according to the Idaho Statesman.

Some smaller neighborhood clinics have taken a different approach, limiting inoculations to their oldest and most health-compromised existing patients.

Saltzer Health (Acquired last year by Utah-based Intermountain Health but management remains in Idaho) is limiting vaccine appointments to previous priority groups and those age 80 and up. Primary Health Medical Group is going a step further: Contacting existing patients based on health history and age to offer vaccination appointments, but not taking incoming appointment reservations for anyone not already in an earlier priority group.

“We have people who are so happy, they're crying,” said Primary Health Operations Project Manager Charissa Austin. “We've had some patients who are upset with our approach, but we're reassuring them that we will get to them and that nobody will be forgotten as long as we can get vaccine.”

Central District Health said only a fraction of more than 100 healthcare provider locations capable of administering the COVID-19 vaccine are actually receiving doses currently. That now includes Fred Meyer Pharmacy locations, which appeared on a list of active providers Tuesday.

Spokeswoman Christina Myron wrote the district evaluates several criteria when determining dose allocation across the district, including volume and logistical capabilities like scheduling.

In the Southwest Health District, spokeswoman Ashley Anderson did not specify if doses were distributed to all or a portion of the 51 district locations able to distribute the vaccine.

“We have planned to ensure vaccine is as available in smaller communities as it is in more populous areas,” Anderson wrote via email. “Vaccine is distributed at ratios that reflect the population of individuals age 65 and older in each of our counties.”

The Primary Health Medical Group CEO Dr. David Peterman thinks his clinics, and other local and neighborhood clinics, are well-positioned to efficiently deliver the vaccine. He pointed out a recent weekend vaccination event hosted by a local hospital, which administered about 1,500 doses.

“We actually did more: 1,600,” Peterman said, though it was over a longer period of time than the vaccination event. Most importantly, he continued, “we did it without people waiting in line and going through what may be very challenging, particularly for people over 65.” Peterman thinks his existing clinics could do five times that amount if enough doses were available, more if they added staff.

Larger hospital operations could certainly also boost throughput if additional vaccine were available.

Peterman and Austin both used the phrase ‘moral obligation’ in describing the approach to narrow availability within an active vaccine priority group. Inoculating those at the highest risk for severe COVID-19 reduces capacity risk at local hospitals, Peterman said, and scheduling with intent is more beneficial compared to a first-come, first-served event or strategy.

“I shudder when I see these mass vaccination sites and I see who's first in line and who's last in line,” he said.

State health officials still don’t know exactly why Idaho hasn’t received as many vaccine doses as initially promised. Providers are eager to prove they can get the shots into the arms of Idahoans as fast as possible.

Austin, who oversees the vaccine program at Primary Health, urged people to trust that medical providers are doing the best they can.

“We've been here for you for the last year, taking care of you and your families during this pandemic. We're going to be taking care of you as soon as we can with the vaccine.”

Follow Troy Oppie on Twitter @GoodBadOppie for more local news.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Saltzer Health as a Utah-based company. Utah-based Intermountain Healthcare acquired Saltzer Health in 2020, but Saltzer Health leadership and operations remain in Idaho. We regret the error.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio

Troy Oppie is a reporter and local host of 'All Things Considered' for Boise State Public Radio News.

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