Monday, April 12, 2021
41.0°F

COVID-19 vaccination rate starting to slow

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Hagadone News Network | April 6, 2021 1:00 AM

▶️ Listen to this article now.

The pace at which North Idahoans are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is starting to slow, a symptom health officials attribute to vaccine hesitancy.

“There is certainly some vaccine hesitancy among our community,” Katherine Hoyer, public information officer for Panhandle Health District, told the Hagadone News Network. “We encourage those who are hesitant to call their health care provider to clear up any questions they have.”

As of right now, anyone 16 or older in North Idaho — and, for that matter, all of Idaho — can get vaccinated against COVID-19. Hours after Gov. Brad Little’s March 24 announcement he was lifting eligibility requirements effective April 5, Panhandle Health announced anyone in the five northernmost counties could get vaccinated immediately. They were announcements that sparked a slight increase in dose administrations: In the week that followed, almost the exact amount of doses statewide from the week before — roughly 80,000 — were administered in the week after, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Now, those numbers are starting to edge backward.

“When we first lifted eligibility, we did see a slight increase in appointments being scheduled,” Hoyer said. “We are seeing great results from calling people who signed up on the state’s waiting list who have yet to receive a vaccine.”

In December, state officials — including Little — noted how Idaho wasn’t receiving its fair share of the vaccine allotments from the federal government. Now, public health leaders say there’s more than enough vaccine to go around, at least for the moment.

“There’s no shortage of vaccine,” Hoyer insisted. “There’s plenty of places you can go to get vaccinated.”

One such place is the Kroc Center, the site of Heritage Health’s vaccination center. Dr. Peter Purrington said he has noticed a slowdown during the process that has so far enabled the hospital to administer 4,466 doses to date.

“We did notice a slight increase over the last week, but not anything we haven’t been able to manage,” Purrington said. “It’s slowed down since then. I would say it’s probably what we expect, based on the culture of North Idaho.”

Purrington added that the turnaround time for people to register on their website — myheritagehealth.org — is around four days from sign-up to vaccination. People can also register through panhandlehealth.org, by calling 877-415-5225, or by contacting their enrolled provider. But the urgency that came with the early days of the vaccine launch, when calls swamped the Panhandle Health phone banks, have since been replaced with open appointment times and relatively empty waiting rooms.

“Counting the 15 minutes after you’re vaccinated where we’re monitoring you for adverse symptoms, people are usually in and out in about 20 minutes,” Purrington said. “We’ve done a great job streamlining the process.”

Heritage Health has also opened a clinic in Kellogg, and Panhandle Health opened its Bonner County clinic, as well. But whether or not those new clinics get Idaho to herd immunity is yet to be decided. Statistician Nate Silver of the data analytics juggernaut FiveThirtyEight said Thursday his firm noted trending vaccine hesitancy in both red states and rural areas overall.

Little has said that, while he hasn’t yet committed to a specific number, he’s shooting for 70 to 80 percent of Idahoans to get vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity. Four months into the vaccination process, and Panhandle Health is reporting one-third of eligible Idahoans have received at least one dose.

But that 33 percent doesn’t tell the whole story. While 64,619 North Idahoans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, marking 32.6 percent of the eligible residents, that percentage doesn’t factor in children 15 and under, a population that doesn’t qualify for the vaccine, as Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson doses are not authorized for those age groups. But children are part of the larger Idaho herd, therefore taking that herd immunity group even further out of reach, setting our vaccinated population closer to 26 percent.

Hoyer said that — herd immunity aside — getting vaccinated is one of the ways to slow the spread of the virus the World Health Organization reports has killed more than 2.8 million people, a number that is climbing with the circulation of new variants.

“Watching what is happening in other countries and other parts of the nation should be providing us a warning of what could happen here if we let our guard down too soon,” Hoyer said. “With the vaccines rolling out, we understand that many are optimistic, but we have a long way to go until we have community immunity. The variants that are popping up are also worrisome and enhance the need for more people to receive the vaccine.”