Gov. Brad Little announced Tuesday that not only is he accepting his Coronavirus Advisory Committee’s Friday recommendation to move Idahoans 65 and older up in line for the COVID-19 vaccine, he’s moving up the whole process, clearing the way for school teachers, first responders and other front-line essential workers to begin getting their vaccines right away.
“We plan to accelerate the pace, while assuring a sustainable cadence of vaccine moving forward,” Little said in a live-streamed address to the state. “As of this morning, we have 247 enrolled providers that can administer vaccine across Idaho. We will be communicating with these hundreds of hospitals, pharmacies and local public health districts and the other providers in the coming days about our new plans.”
Little, who is 66, said he’ll first prioritize “teachers, school staff, first responders and some front-line workers” between Wednesday and the end of the month “before making doses available” to seniors. He said that’s because there are about 500,000 Idahoans who fall in the next priority group of front-line workers and seniors.
“The 65 and older population is enormous and there’s still work actively being done to build up capacity in our providers for this population,” Little said. “We do not want to create a bubble and backlog.”
That aligns with an updated vaccine timeline that the state health department released Tuesday. It says all the next priority groups will begin sooner than initially expected.
Starting Tuesday, the timeline says first responders, pre-K-12 and daycare workers, and staff will be able to access vaccine doses. In February, Idahoans 65 and older, and many other essential workers, will start getting the vaccine. People between 16 and 64 years old who have high-risk medical conditions, and “essential workers not included in previous groups,” will be able to access COVID-19 shots in March and April. The general public can access vaccines in May, according to the timeline; that month may also see the first vaccine be approved for some children.
The finalized second phase of a four-plank vaccine access plan caps a week of consternation for Idaho’s younger seniors, who worried a possible cutoff of 75 years old would leave some between 65 and 74 — who are at much greater risk than the general public for severe COVID-19 complications from COVID-19, including death — waiting until April to get potentially life-saving shots.
An Idaho vaccine panel last Friday recommended Little set the age minimum to 65 for phase two, which departed from Centers for Disease Control guidance at the time that said only those over 75 should be included. The federal government reversed course on that recommendation hours before Little’s announcement Tuesday, telling states to speed up vaccine distribution and give shots to “people age 65 and older and younger people with certain health problems,” according to the Associated Press.
Prior to the change, states were grappling with questions about whether allowing only those 75 and older to be vaccinated in the next phase would provide equitable vaccine access to people most at risk to contract the virus and those most at risk to die from it. Idaho vaccine planners said last week that front-line workers with high exposure risk are younger, on average, than the older people killed by COVID-19 at high rates.
According to AARP last week, most states agreed with the previous federally recommended cutoff of 75 years old. But some states, including Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas opted to let all residents 65 and older get the shot, bucking the former federal guidance. Some chose their own age cutoffs, such as Louisiana and Montana which let residents 70 and older get the shot.
While Idaho health officials mulled changing the age cutoff last week, seniors across the state pushed back. One 87-year-old sued Little to force the state to let Idahoans 65 and older get the vaccine soon, according to the Associated Press. Others wrote letters to the editor to newspapers and called reporters.
“I have lived with the expectation that if I get the virus I will most likely die,” Don Batze, a 71-year-old Nampa resident who has cancer, told the Post Register. “I asked my children to not visit for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Most of my face-to-face contact with the outside world is limited to visiting the cancer clinic for therapy.”
Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell contributed.