First responders

First responders are slated receive COVID-19 vaccinations in the first round of doses, according to the state’s interim plan.

After a slower-than-expected start to Idaho’s COVID-19 vaccination rollout, state public health leaders say they anticipate the process to speed up in the coming weeks and months.

Still, unless additional vaccines are approved by the federal government or current manufacturers ramp up production, Idaho will only have the ability to vaccinate about 1 million people by the end of the year—a smaller number than may be needed to achieve herd immunity in the state. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Idaho’s population at around 1.787 million.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 20,843 doses of the vaccine had been administered in Idaho since the first Idahoan was vaccinated three weeks prior. The number of doses administered per week has slowly increased over that period, state public health officials said in a press conference Tuesday, with a 43 percent increase in doses from the first week to the second week and an additional 30 percent increase in doses from the second week to the third week.

Overall, that number—20,843 doses administered over three weeks—isn’t representative of the anticipated rate of vaccination from this point forward, according to officials with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Going forward, Public Health Administrator Elke Shaw-Tulloch said, Idaho is slated to receive about 20,000 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines per week, with an additional 20,000 reserved for second doses.

If the status quo is maintained, that means Idaho will have the ability to vaccinate about 1 million people over the next year—

about 56 percent of the state’s population.

Idaho officials don’t expect that every person in the state will want to be vaccinated, State Epidemiologist Christine Hahn noted in the press conference.

“We know we’ll never achieve 100 percent, and we don’t need to be at 100 percent,” Hahn said.

A month ago, Hahn said, health officials believed that herd immunity might be achieved in Idaho with somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 or 70 percent of Idahoans getting vaccinated. But recent reports of a new, apparently more infectious strain of COVID-19 in South Africa has led Idaho officials to wonder whether that percentage might need to be closer to 80 or 85 percent, Hahn said.

“Right now, that is fluid,” Hahn said. “For now, we’re going to keep vaccinating and keep information coming in about what we have to do.”

While the current expectation is that Idaho will receive 20,000 doses per week, health officials are optimistic that the number may increase in the coming months if additional vaccines are approved or current manufacturers are able to increase production, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said.

For now, the state’s plan for who can get vaccinated and when is also fluid. The current vaccination plan, available on the state’s coronavirus website, prioritizes health-care workers and long-term care facility staff and residents in its first phase, which is currently ongoing. The second phase, which is slated to start in February, includes adults older than 75 and workers including teachers, food processing workers, grocery store and convenience workers, and members of the Idaho National Guard.

In a telephone town hall held by the Idaho AARP earlier Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Brad Little fielded questions from several callers asking why adults who are older than 65—currently scheduled to start receiving the vaccine in April, along with younger people who have preexisting medical conditions—would not be receiving the vaccine before younger essential workers, noting the higher death rate in the state among elderly Idahoans. In response, Little noted that younger essential workers, while perhaps not more likely to die of the virus, may be at greater risk for acting as “vectors for spread.”

The governor’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee will discuss the matter—and the possibility of rearranging the plan to start vaccinating those 65 and older in the second phase in February—at a meeting Friday, Shaw-Tulloch said. The governor will then approve or reject the committee’s recommendations.

“These are not easy discussions or decisions, and we know people’s opinions will differ,” Hahn said.

Email the writer: gkauffman@mtexpress.com

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