By Zach Hagadone
As the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine begins to ramp up in Idaho, state health officials and Gov. Brad Little offered a pair of briefings Jan. 5 focused on presenting a tentative timeline for who will get the two-dose vaccination, when and where.
Calling the vaccine “a real turning point” and “a modern medical miracle,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen told reporters that already more than 20,800 doses of the newly approved Pfizer BioNTech treatment have been administered in the state over the past three weeks. That number was updated the morning of Jan. 6 to 22,833 total vaccine doses administered.
Those doses have gone to Idahoans in so-called Phase 1A of the distribution schedule, which comprises health care workers and staff and residents of long-term care facilities.
So far Idaho has received 83,475 doses of the vaccine, with 20,000 more expected each week, on top of 20,000 held in reserve each week for use in the second dosage.
Idaho health officials reported 1,263 new cases of COVID-19 as of the afternoon of Jan. 6, bringing the statewide total to 146,106 confirmed and probable cases since virus tracking began in the spring of 2020. In that time, 1,488 Idahoans have died as a result of COVID-19. The Panhandle Health District logged 213 new cases in the five northernmost counties in the state Jan. 6, including 27 new active cases in Bonner County for an active total of 601.
Meanwhile, the PHD announced Jan. 4 that it would be hosting vaccination clinics for “dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants and other frontline health care workers who have direct contact with COVID positive patients,” in accordance with the Idaho COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee’s Phase 1A guidelines.
“We are excited to provide this service to this important group of health care providers that work in very close contact with the public every day,” said PHD Health Services Administrator Don Duffy in a news release. “Our community is making good progress working through the Phase 1A group. … [A]nd we recently deployed teams with the help of our Medical Reserve Corps and National Guard to vaccinate emergency medical services teams in all five of the counties we serve.”
The vaccine clinics will be hosted in Sandpoint, Hayden and Kellogg on Jan. 6, 7 and 8, and PHD is working to provide details to every dental office on where, when and how to access the clinics.
According to its Jan. 4 statement, PHD had received about 11,500 doses of vaccine, and distributed around 6,500. PHD reports that 4,400 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are being allocated for the health care worker clinics starting this week.
A federally-managed pharmacy partnership program is working to get “strike teams” into long-term care facilities to administer vaccines, PHD reported, and those numbers are not counted among the aforementioned dose counts.
“Panhandle Health District will continue to communicate with the community as greater supply of the vaccine becomes available,” officials stated. “If you are a part of the first priority groups, the health district and community partners enrolled to administer the vaccine will coordinate with your employer as [the vaccine] is made available.”
PHD also noted that “once there is enough supply,” vaccination providers can list their location on the VaccineFinder website — an application the general public will be able to access to find out where they can access the COVID-19 vaccine. The CDC will direct the public to use VaccineFinder once doses are available, according to PHD.
State health officials noted that vaccine availability and data tracking is subject to a period of lag between receipt of the doses and their delivery to local providers, as well as the necessary steps to establish proper storage, medical staff training and setting up vaccine clinics.
Yet, DHW Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch said, “We feel very pleased with how the vaccine clinics are going and how the vaccine doses are being administered.”
According to Little, vaccinations for all members of the Phase 1A group — which totals about 130,000 individuals statewide — are expected to be complete by the end of the month, after which doses will be available to those in the Phase 1B group.
The second group includes school teachers and staff, non-EMS first responders, non-medial correctional facility staff, food processing workers, grocery and convenience store workers, non-medical Idaho National Guard members, other essential workers who are unable to work remotely or distance from others while on the job, and adults 75 years of age and older.
Administration of the Phase 1B group vaccines is expected to run from February to April, after which doses will be offered to adults 65 and older, individuals over the age of 16 with medical conditions that put them at risk for severe COVID-19 complications and all other essential workers. If vaccine supplies are available, members of the general public are able to receive doses beginning in May.
State epidemiologist Christine Hahn said at a news briefing Jan. 5 that to reach so-called “herd immunity” will require at least 60% of the state population to receive the vaccine. That would require nearly 1.1 million Idahoans to get vaccinated, though should the new and apparently more contagious strain of COVID-19 come to the state, Hahn cautioned that as much as 80% of the population may need to receive the vaccine.
That goal may be out of reach, however, not only because of vaccine refusal but the availability of doses. In response to a question about distribution of the vaccine from federal health authorities, Jeppesen acknowledged that Idaho’s allocation of 20,000 doses per week plus 20,000 held back for secondary doses “is a lower amount than we had anticipated.”
However, he said state officials hope that production ramps up even as additional vaccines from other pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca become available.
“Do we wish it was more? Yes. Do we have conversations with our federal partners about it? Absolutely,” Jeppesen said, adding that the timeline may be altered should more doses be allocated to the state.
Another concern is just who is included in the various phases of the vaccine rollout timeline.
As noted in a tele-town hall Jan. 5 between Little and AARP-Idaho, essential workers such as grocery and convenience store workers are currently slated to receive vaccines in Phase 1B — ahead of Idahoans aged 65 to 75, which comprises the group with among the highest risks for COVID-19 complications.
Some participants on the AARP call pushed back at that classification, pressing the governor and his COVID-19 committee to move that older age group into an earlier phase.
Explaining the rationale for the phases, Little said, “Some of those essential workers are vectors for spread that have been exposed all along in this. And that is why those essential workers who have had that exposure are in that group. But believe me, senior citizens are a top priority.”
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Hahn said the governor’s virus committee could decide to put the 65+ age group into an earlier phase when it meets Friday, Jan. 8.
In the meantime, Jeppesen underscored that, “It still remains extremely important that we wear masks, maintain six feet of distance from people who are not your family members and washing hands. … It’s more critical than ever that we follow those simple measures.”
Find more information about Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout at coronavirus.idaho.gov and on the Panhandle Health District’s website, panhandlehealthdistrict.org/covid-19.
Additional reporting by Lyndsie Kiebert.
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