By Lyndsie Kiebert
Idaho Gov. Brad Little and the state’s pandemic response officials are focused on speeding up the rate of distribution of both the COVID-19 vaccine and important information regarding how to access doses — a mission the governor emphasized during an AARP Telephone Town Hall event Jan. 19, during which Idahoans from rural to urban areas were able to ask questions about the vaccine.
Little said the people who have called into the virtual Town Halls — which typically take place every other Tuesday at 11 a.m. PST — since they began in March have been instrumental in informing the state’s pandemic response.
“They’ve urged things on this call and we’ve changed state policy as a result of it, or we knew we weren’t communicating well because of it,” Little said. “So we’re thankful for the opportunity.”
Little shared his intention to ramp up vaccine distribution in coming weeks, assuming a steady stream of doses will continue to arrive from the federal level.
“We’re scaling up right now, rapidly, and it’s really important … that not only if you’re in an urban area you can have access to vaccines, but if you’re in a rural area,” Little said.
As of Jan. 20, 61,333 Idahoans had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while an estimated 11,778 had received both doses. In Bonner County, 1,811 people have received the shot, with 164 of those considered fully vaccinated. Currently, the state is focused on vaccinating people who fall under Groups 1 and 2: health care workers, people in long-term care facilities, first responders, K-12 teachers and staff, child care staff, correctional facility personnel and people over the age of 65. However, widespread appointments and an official plan for vaccinating people over 65 is expected to launch by Feb. 1.
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen fielded a question about possible side effects of the vaccine during the phone call, saying that while a sore arm is to be expected in most cases — just as with the annual flu shot — side effects such as headache and fatigue happen to the minority of vaccinated people and are “very minor and do not last very long — 12 to 24 hours at the most.” He said those with a history of anaphylactic shock to other vaccines or medications should consult their physician before pursuing a COVID-19 vaccine.
By and large, questions during the call centered around a single concern: When and how can I access the vaccine?
An unidentified 68-year-old Bonners Ferry man called in to detail his difficulty in securing current information about accessing the vaccine in the far northern reaches of the state.
“I called my physician, who has no new information. I called the health service that is allegedly going to give vaccines, [and] they didn’t even realize 65-year-olds could get it — they have no idea when they’re going to get vaccines,” he said. “I called Panhandle Health the last couple days and looked at their website. They have no new information about when vaccines are going to be given, so I feel a little like we’ve been stranded up here in Boundary County. …There’s no really good information to know how we go about applying.”
Little said the Bonners Ferry man was correct to call the health district, and also pointed to local hospitals as a good source of information. He pointed out that the state is still more than a week away from launching the official vaccination period for people over 65, and noted that communication to that age group will be improved by then.
Little added that he and Jeppesen had a conversation earlier in the week with a small independent pharmacy located in Bonners Ferry that wanted to start signing locals up for its vaccine. Such providers could see access to doses in short order, thanks to a grant program IDHW announced Jan. 19.
According to a press release from the governor’s office, “the new COVID-19 Vaccine Capacity, Safety and Reporting Grants can be used by enrolled vaccine provider organizations to increase staffing to administer shots, purchase needed equipment and supplies and improve vaccine access for hard-to-reach and vulnerable populations.”
Jeppesen said during the AARP call that administering the grants is an integral step in making sure “that money is not a barrier for us getting out into the very rural parts of Idaho and getting people vaccinated.”
IDHW officials will initiate communication with health care providers regarding the grant program, and more information is available at coronavirus.idaho.gov/covid-19-vaccine.
Part of the “lag” happening with vaccine distribution in Idaho can be attributed to the need for providers to be trained in administering the vaccine, as well as the need for people to make appointments to receive their doses. In addition, according to a statement from the governor’s office, the state “is receiving a disproportionately lower share of vaccine compared to other states because the federal government is not allocating vaccine on a per capita basis.”
In an effort to speed up distribution, Little announced Jan. 19 that he is calling on more National Guard personnel to help with vaccine distribution, increasing their numbers from the currently active 250 to 400.
“Our women and men in the Idaho National Guard have stepped in to meet critical needs at healthcare facilities across Idaho since the fall,” Little said, “and the availability of additional guardsmen to assist with vaccine distribution moving forward will help us even more in the pandemic fight.”
Idaho reported 810 new cases of COVID-19 on Jan. 20, bringing the statewide total to 157,588 cases and 1,635 deaths from the virus. In Bonner County, Panhandle Health District has logged 2,484 cases, with 758 of those currently active, and 24 cases resulting in death.
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