BOISE — The state of Idaho is launching a centralized system this month for residents to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.
Residents frustrated by the sign-up process have been reaching out to multiple of the state’s 400 enrolled providers, then failing to cancel appointments, causing a delay in access for others currently eligible under the state’s priority guidelines, according to state officials.
The newly centralized option will require patients to provide their information in one location. When a provider has an appointment open, they will reach out to eligible patients. The goal is to improve communication so that people no longer have to check websites or call providers daily, hourly, or by the minute.
“You can rest assured you’re on the list and someone will reach out when they have an appointment open,” Idaho Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen said during Tuesday’s AARP town hall with Gov. Brad Little.
Idaho is expected to receive 13,000 doses of the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine on Thursday, for a total vaccine allotment this week of more than 50,000.
Vaccine access has varied across counties in Idaho, pushing leadership to develop the new vaccine appointment tool intended to centralize booking requests, set to launch later this week.
Little said the state’s economic activity and job growth are doing well, adding that Idaho leads the nation in small business formation. This has been aided by the vaccine rollout, he said. As of Monday evening, statistics indicated up to 47% of Idahoans 65 years and older had been vaccinated with at least one dose.
Jeppesen said that 53% of Idahoans 85 and older have received one dose, while the 75- to 84-year-old age group has a current 51% vaccination rate. At long-term care facilities, roughly 85% of residents have been vaccinated to date, Little said. Jeppesen added that out of 400 identified facilities, the number with active outbreaks has dropped to 113 from a number previously over 200.
Positive COVID-19 case counts have continued to drop statewide. Five counties — Benewah, Bonneville, Fremont, Latah, and Madison — currently have an incidence rates of over 25 new cases per day per 100,000 population. More than half of the counties display incidence rates in the single digits, which Little noted is “vastly different than what we’ve had before.”
The governor requested that Idahoans stay safe and continue to adhere to public safety guidelines until everyone who wants to has been vaccinated. Asked why there’s a great difference in the percentage of eligible people vaccinated county to county, Little noted that “anxiousness” in the community about getting the vaccine has contributed to a slow rollout.
Two or three counties have displayed a higher uptake rate, he said, and counties with some of the lowest rates have been receiving adequate vaccine allotments but aren’t using all doses.
Little said the priority at the moment is to make sure everyone gets vaccinated. Dr. Christine Hahn, the state’s epidemiologist, “is literally an expert and we just don’t know” how long the vaccine will be effective, Little said. “Viruses change. Right now, we don’t know whether it will morph into a seasonal virus. Just get the vaccine.”
Booster shots are being developed by Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson compatible with their mRNA vaccines, he said. Anyone worried about having a reaction to the vaccine is advised to discuss it with the provider and stay for 30 minutes after receiving the first dose.
Jeppesen and Little fielded a number of questions from residents currently included in the priority groups who still have not been vaccinated due to lack of appointment availability. One of those was an employee with the nonprofit Easterseals who will be working in the prisons but doesn’t qualify as a correctional worker.
Law enforcement and correctional workers have been eligible since January, and employees are the primary transmitters of the virus in detention center and long-term care facility settings. The state has not prioritized inmate vaccination.
A Boise resident with a 91-year-old homebound mother asked what can be done to get her vaccinated. The governor said many of the enrolled EMS providers across the state are going to homes and recommended that anyone in this situation reach out to their local health district.
Some residents who are immunocompromised but are under 65 haven’t been able to get the vaccine and argued they should be prioritized, to which Little answered that further groups will be addressed at the Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee meeting on Friday.
The state is monitoring research about COVID-19 “long-haulers” — people who recovered from the virus but are still experiencing residual effects like loss of smell, taste, and trouble regulating body temperature. “The body of evidence about what to do on long-haulers is very thin,” said Little.
Even people who tested positive but were asymptomatic are showing respiratory and neurological issues down the road, he said.
According to Jeppesen, the Department of Health and Welfare is coordinating through Dr. Hahn to disseminate information about these conditions to physicians across the state as quickly as possible as it arises.