Idaho’s Vaccine Rollout Challenges

Photo of a senior women getting a vaccine shot
© Rido81, Bigstock.com.

Part 1 of a Series on the COVID-19 Vaccine

By CARRIE SCOZZARO

Kathy Colton got lucky and she knew it. The 66-year-old Coeur d’Alene-area cancer and stroke survivor had spent a fretful year masked up and unable to perform live music at senior centers and other venues.

When she heard the local health district was scheduling appointments, she logged on, filled out forms for herself and her wife of 18 years, and got an appointment right away. It wasn’t until later the couple discovered the posting was an error, but by then, says Colton, they’d had their second shot and could breathe just the tiniest bit easier.

As with Colton, for most Idahoans wanting a vaccine, the first point of-contact is one of seven local Health Districts. These government entities created in 1970 are tasked with “preventing disease, disability, and premature death; promoting healthy lifestyles; and protecting the health and quality of the environment.”

They cover between five to eight counties each, including tribal communities. As somewhat autonomous entities, they maintain their own websites. The posting of COVID info—infection and death rates, testing facilities, vaccine availability and locations—varies widely.

On its home page, Eastern Idaho’s Health District prominently displays a data dashboard, links to COVID testing, and a general COVID-19 resource page, with numerous links in Spanish, too. Residents of Bonneville, Clark, Custer, Fremont, Jefferson, Lemhi, Madison, and Teton counties are redirected to available providers, which range from the Idaho Health Department to healthcare facilities to pharmacies in more populous counties like Bonneville.

The Panhandle Health District for north Idaho does not list testing sites nor current statistics on the home page. Instead, a rotating banner provides links to vaccine scheduling for Benewah, Bonner, Boundary, Kootenai, and Shoshone counties. Also included are phone numbers and a reminder that Idaho requires proof of eligibility—residency, age, employment—for appointments they’re booking by week, with no wait lists or walkups available.

The website for the nation’s Centers for Disease Control offers a growing list of private providers, state by state, under the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, including select Walmart and Albertsons locations (visit the CDC’s website for updates).

Located in Coeur d’Alene, Northstar assisted living partnered with Walgreen’s to vaccinate its 159 residents, ages 68 to 100, plus 75 staff members during three on-site clinics.

According to Executive Director Tambra Maple, Northstar contracted with Walgreens in September 2020 to ensure residents of its 16 facilities throughout the northwest would be covered. Now, says Maple, they’re working with Kootenai Health to schedule as-needed appointments for any new residents.

At the time this publication went to press at the end of March, Idaho’s Department of Health and Welfare reported roughly 8.6 percent of Idaho’s population has received one dose, and 14.4 percent had been fully vaccinated.

Idaho’s vaccination rollout falls under the governor’s appointed COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee (CVAC), which in December 2020 recommended prioritizing healthcare personnel and long-term care facility staff and residents.  Next came essential workers, like first responders, pre-K-12 educators, National Guard, and food-related industry workers and those 65-and-older, beginning February 2021. Vaccines then expanded to anyone aged 45 and older. By the end of March, individuals 16 to 44 who had at least one medical condition were able to get vaccinated.

As of April 5, vaccines have been open to all Idahoans 16 and above.

Idaho’s vaccine rollout—indeed its handling of coronavirus, including haphazard and unenforced mask mandates and a lack of consistent testing—has not been without challenges.

On February 2, for example, the State re-entered Stage 3, allowing gatherings of 50 people with few—yet mostly unenforced—restrictions, which has been the norm since the initial lockdown.

Infection and death rates have been insufficiently high for quelling pushback by the State’s Legislature against the governor’s powers to declare emergencies such as the pandemic.

How that will impact Idahoans moving forward is anyone’s guess. ISI