EIRMC COVID-19 vaccination

Registered nurse Becky Richins receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls on Dec. 17, 2020.

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Idaho has some idea of who its front-line essential workers are — those who are at incredibly high risk to be exposed to the virus and will be given early access to vaccines.

Beyond that, the state’s leading vaccine planners are still figuring things out.

“Because we have limited vaccine, we have to be thoughtful about how to roll these out,” Dr. Patrice Burgess, a family medicine specialist in Boise who is also chairwoman of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine panel, said Friday.

A narrower definition of essential workers will quicken vaccinations in that group, opening access for medically vulnerable people at high-risk for COVID-19 complications. But there are concerns that people in specific jobs with high exposure risk levels that don’t fall into traditional categories may have to unfairly wait until the general public can get shots.

Vaccine planners are trying to strike a balance.

The state is currently vaccinating its top two priority groups. The first consists of about 130,000 health care workers and long-term care facility staff. The next has about 47,000 first responders, pre- and K-12 teachers and jail staff. Those “front-line” essential workers are the first of three subgroups in phase 2, which also includes seniors and other essential workers.

A state vaccine panel on Friday considered four proposals that would, together, let fewer than a few thousand workers in specific jobs access vaccines now or just weeks away. In talks about whether a given job should be prioritized for vaccines, members of the Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee weighed many factors before deciding to tell Gov. Brad Little what he should do.

Some members argued that while some jobs, such as public utility maintenance, are essential, they don’t involve exposure to the virus as much as other jobs. Identifying more targeted people within a subgroup, such as foster care parents who accept children in time-sensitive crises, can more fairly get vaccines to people who have the most exposure risk, some members argued.

As the panel discussed specific jobs, some voting members said they worried that putting more people at the front of the line will only further delay vaccine access to Idahoans with disabilities and medical conditions that put them at high-risk for COVID-19 complications. Those groups are tentatively set to start getting inoculated in late March and early April.

By putting more people at the front of the line, “we are pushing high risk populations further back,” Mel Leviton, director of the State Independent Living Council, said during votes. Many of them “cannot live” or contribute to the economy, Leviton said, if they contract COVID-19 and die or “become hospitalized while grocery shopping.”

What did the panel consider?

The committee voted on four proposals Friday, rejecting all but one. The approved change, which Little must approve, was to the state’s top priority group: Clergy members who enter health care facilities to provide religious services, such as giving last rites to dying patients, are now being considered in the same group as health care workers. The 26 voting members of the panel present on Friday approved the change on a unanimous vote.

The other three proposals were all shot down by wide margins.

1) Should parents in more than 1,000 foster households be considered front-line essential workers in phase 2.1?

The committee shot this down on a 23-3 vote, which followed a close 14-12 initial vote that the panel said wasn’t definitive enough.

2) Should emergency utility, water and power workers be considered front-line essential workers in phase 2.1?

The committee shot this down on an 18-8 vote.

3) Should mail delivery workers who don’t work for the U.S. Postal Service be considered essential workers in phase 2.3 (which is after both front-line essential workers and people age 65 and up, in phase 2.2)? This group would include workers at UPS, FedEx and Amazon Prime.

The panel rejected this on a unanimous vote.

What’s left to be decided?

The state has a good idea of who should be in its first and second priority groups. About 291,000 people age 65 and up are the next group in phase 2 to get vaccine access early next month, with other essential workers in sectors such as food, agriculture and manufacturing to follow in late February or early March.

But nothing has been decided for the third priority group, which is expected to include both Idahoans age 16 to 64 who have medical conditions that put them at high-risk for COVID-19 complications and a broader category of “other essential workers.”

That group is set to start receiving vaccinations in late March and early April, depending on vaccine availability. The only group left after them in the state vaccine timeline is the general public. That’s set to start in May.

Priority groups are expected to overlap. In other words, vaccinations for one group don’t necessarily end when a new one begins. No vaccines have been approved for children yet, but medical trials are ongoing.

As of Friday morning, 82,475 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Idaho, with about 55,000 people getting only their first dose and almost 14,000 people getting both doses. About 68,600 people in Idaho have received at least one COVID-19 shot, the state health department said.

Want to weigh in?

Send written public comments to Idaho’s Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee via email at covid19vaccinepubliccomment@dhw.idaho.gov.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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