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Idaho’s Vaccine Picture A Month After All Adults Became Eligible

More than one million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been given out in Idaho and nearly half a million people in the state are fully vaccinated.

It’s been one month since Idaho Gov. Brad Little opened up vaccine appointments to anyone 16 and older. That week, Idaho administered 95,000 doses — the most out of any week in the vaccine effort thus far. But in the weeks since, the vaccine rollout has started to slow down, as fewer people sign up to get shots.

Idaho is on par with the national picture when it comes to the vaccination rate of seniors. Seventy percent of those 65 and older have been fully vaccinated, and Idaho wants 80% of seniors to be fully vaccinated by June 1. Experts have said that’s around the percentage of the total population that has to be fully vaccinated to reach “herd immunity,” though state health officials say the concept is a moving target, especially as new variants change the way the virus spreads.

A quarter of Idaho's population is under the age of 18, so getting vaccines authorized for children is an important step on the state's path to herd immunity. Right now, only one vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech, is available for teens 16-18 and no vaccine has received emergency use authorization for children younger than 16 years old. The New York Times reports the Pfizer vaccine could receive the authorization for kids aged 12-15 in the next week.

Since April 5, everyone 16 and older in Idaho can sign up for a vaccine appointment, but rates are still lagging for the younger age groups. The state’s vaccine dashboard says only 23% of Idahoans between the ages of 16 and 24 have gotten at least one dose.

The vaccination picture looks very different throughout the state. In Blaine County, 91% of seniors 65 and older are already fully vaccinated. That’s compared to Clark County where the rate for seniors is just 36%.

From the beginning of the rollout, people living in Idaho’s rural counties have been underrepresented in the state's vaccination rate, whereas people living in urban counties have been overrepresented. The health department started collecting vaccination data by race and ethnicity in early March, but the percentage of cases where race and ethnicity are unknown is high.

After vaccine eligibility opened up to all adults in the beginning of April, health officials said the state had entered a new phase in the vaccine rollout, in which the focus would be getting the vaccine to people versus trying to get them to come into providers’ offices for appointments.

Health districts have begun to move away from large open clinics, to more targeted on-the-ground efforts like employment-based and mobile clinics. Maggie Mann, the director of Southeastern Idaho Public Health, said the health district is bringing vaccines to directly to local business and to homebound individuals. While it’s continually trying to improve access issues, Mann said hesitancy is the biggest challenge right now.

“Traditionally, with other vaccines, we do not have rates where we would like them to be. That is largely driven by hesitancy issues rather than access,” wrote Mann in an email.

A survey the state conducted earlier this year showed at least 40% of the population either didn't plan on getting a COVID-19 vaccine or wasn't sure. Federal estimates show the Idaho has some of the highest hesitancy rates in the country.

Clark County, on the border with Montana, has the lowest vaccination rate for seniors, and among the lowest for all adults. Despite that, Eastern Idaho Public Health said it’s held clinics there weekly since February. As for why that county saw a jump in its vaccination rate in mid-April, the health district said some paid outreach in the newspaper and on social media might’ve boosted the rates then.

But access to shots likely still plays a role. Camas County, in south central Idaho, had one of the lowest vaccination rates early on. There are no COVID-19 vaccine providers located in the county. Instead, the South Central Public Health District has traveled there three times — in January, February and late March, each time driving up the vaccination rate for the state’s second-least-populated county.

Brianna Bodily, the public information officer for the health district, said at open clinics in rural counties throughout April, people who were getting their first shots, even several weeks after they became eligible, often cited busy schedules and lack of convenient options for why they hadn’t made it to a clinic earlier.

The Idaho Department of Health of Welfare is now doubling down on efforts to reach people who haven’t yet been vaccinated. It got rid of a previous rule that said all people signing up for vaccine appointments had to live or work in the state. And last week it announced a $9 million grant fund for off-site vaccination efforts targeting underserved populations, including racial and ethnic minorities and rural communities.

On Monday, the state’s largest health system, St. Luke’s, announced a new mobile vaccination clinic with stops including the Mexican Consulate in Boise, the Hunger Coalition in Bellevue and Vallivue High School in Caldwell.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio