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Idaho Vaccination Rate Stalls As Providers Try To Reach Those In 'No Rush'

Vials of the Pfizer vaccine are ready to be administered at a health district vaccine clinic in Buhl, Idaho.
Rachel Cohen
/
Boise State Public Radio
Vials of the Pfizer vaccine are prepared for a health district clinic in Buhl.

On a blistering hot day in Twin Falls, Idaho, Joanna Damey was cooling off with her kids by a downtown splash park. She didn’t hesitate when asked her thoughts on the COVID vaccine.

“I have not gotten it and I do not plan on it,” she said.

Damey had COVID last November, and contracting the virus again isn’t something that worries her.

“I feel like my body was able to fight it well and I don’t need to now get a vaccine to help my body with that,” she said.

The medical community says getting COVID does give some immunity, but it’s not clear on how long it lasts. A new study suggests that getting vaccinated after recovering from COVID means immunity could last a year or more.

But Damey’s not alone in her thinking. A recent survey contracted by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare found about a third of Idahoans say they definitely won’t get the vaccine.

Only about 45% of state residents eligible for the vaccine, age 12 or older, have gotten at least one dose. Weekly vaccinations in the state are at their lowest since January, when the shots were just available to health care workers, long-term care residents, first responders and teachers.

“Even though we knew our community wasn’t fully vaccinated, the number of people that were getting vaccinated and that were scheduling to come in dropped precipitously,” said Dr. Basil Anderson, the medical director of Family Health Services, a network of community health centers in the Magic Valley.

Anderson said the decline began in late April. After a small rush when the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was authorized for kids as young as 12, the health system went from about 500 vaccinations a week to between 10 and 100.

The survey the state conducted in April found Idahoans increasingly think COVID-19 is not a problem. In April, 80% of survey respondents said they were “not worried at all” about getting infected by the coronavirus, compared to 49% in January.

At the same time, concerns about the side effects from the vaccines are rising in Idaho. The number of people who thought of the vaccine as being “very safe” dropped by 14 percentage points between January and April, and the perception that significant vaccine side effects are common increased by 22 percentage points.

“That seems to be the perception most of my patients have coming in,” Anderson said, “is that they are going to have symptoms and that the drug companies have lied about the number of reactions that actually occur.”

Anderson said he explains to his patients that the risks from getting COVID-19 are far greater than potential side effects from the vaccine. For some, that’s enough to convince them. But, not all.

“Trying to talk them out of that belief is not easy,” he said.

Back in downtown Twin Falls, 18-year-old Mason Loughmiller is part of the “wait and see” crowd.

“When you come up with a vaccine that fast, there’s going to be more long-term effects and side effects of it,” he said.

A splash park in downtown Twin Falls in front of Main Ave
Rachel Cohen
A splash park in downtown Twin Falls

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. It says some mild side effects like swelling at the injection site, fever, headache, muscle pain and chills are common. But it says more serious health problems are rare and long-term side effects from the vaccine are “extremely unlikely.”

Loughmiller doesn’t know when, but he said he’ll more likely than not end up getting the vaccine. He’s a volunteer firefighter in a rural district outside of Twin Falls. His chief strongly recommended vaccinations. But Loughmiller said even if it was required for work, that might not change his mind.

“Where I’m not too sure how my body would react to it, I wouldn’t want to put myself in a harmful position, especially just for a job. You can go find another job anywhere else,” he said.

This lack of urgency to get vaccinated is pervasive in Idaho. According to the state’s survey, about half of respondents said they were in “no rush” to get the shot or wanted to “wait and see.”

That’s left vaccine providers and public health districts wondering what else they can do to increase vaccination numbers. They point to clinics they’ve held at dairy farms, public libraries, school gymnasiums, even one at an upcoming fiddle festival.

“The limitation is hesitancy, at this point. It is not access. It is not the amount of available vaccine,” Anderson said.

Dr. Basil Anderson of Family Health Services in his office in Twin Falls
Rachel Cohen
Dr. Basil Anderson, medical director of Family Health Services.

The key is continuing to show up, and to the right places, said Herbert Romero, a community organizer in Blaine County. Even though the county has consistently had the highest vaccination rate in the state, Romero saw a need for more outreach, particularly to the county’s Latino community.

With the help of county commissioners and the health district, he initiated bringing the St. Luke’s mobile vaccine clinic to the valley. It stopped at the Hunger Coalition in Bellevue, an apartment complex in Hailey and an RV park in Ketchum.

“People still are hesitant and they have their reasons,” Romero said, “but us being there, in their faith, in their area, in their community makes a difference.”

The first mobile shot clinics in Blaine were in early May, more than a month after all adults in Idaho became eligible. Still, they drew more than 250 people in an area where vaccination sites are ample.

A survey conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation last month found Hispanic adults who had not been vaccinated expressed wanting to get the shot at a rate about twice as high as White adults, but they cite more barriers to doing so, like not being able to get vaccinated at a location they trust.

Romero wants to bring vaccine providers back to the valley for a clinic focused on eligible teens. He said maybe they’ll even have carnival games.

The state health department said it would like Idaho’s vaccination numbers to be higher, particularly among 12- to 15-year-olds.

To boost the rates, the department has put aside $9 million for grants to organizations and businesses that bring vaccines to underserved populations. One of those is Kurt’s Pharmacy in Twin Falls, which has held mobile clinics at area employers, the College of Southern Idaho and a school district in Twin Falls County.

The Department of Health and Welfare has also rolled out a communications campaign focused on vaccine confidence.

One thing Idaho hasn’t done yet, is announce any statewide incentives, a step 29 states have taken, according to a new Pew Charitable Trusts analysis. Idaho state health officials said that option is still on the table.

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio