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Idaho loosens gathering restrictions, yet vaccine rollout lags behind most states

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 2, 2021

Idaho Gov. Brad Little wears a protective mask emblazoned with his state’s flag in Boise before announcing a COVID-19 reopening plan in September.  (Darin Oswald/ Idaho Statesman)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little wears a protective mask emblazoned with his state’s flag in Boise before announcing a COVID-19 reopening plan in September. (Darin Oswald/ Idaho Statesman)

It could take 10 weeks to inoculate Idaho’s senior population against COVID-19 as the state’s early success with vaccinations runs up against the same supply problems that have frustrated the nation.

That lag time has sent Idaho to the bottom tier of states that are successfully vaccinating health care workers and residents 65 and older at an increasing clip.

Idaho’s slowed rollout to give shots to the 250,000 eligible people also dovetails with the arrival of variants in neighboring states, including Washington and Oregon.

And yet on Tuesday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little loosened COVID-19 restrictions statewide to allow larger gatherings.

By Tuesday, all vaccine appointments in the Idaho Panhandle were already full.

Late last week, the Panhandle Health District announced that it expected 3,800 vaccine doses to arrive this week in the five-county region.

Statewide, Idaho has about 28,000 first doses that have not been administered.

Idaho has received fewer doses per capita than every other state thus far, state Department of Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen told reporters on Tuesday. The problem is partly due to the state’s population.

The federal government is basing dose amounts on states’ adult population. And Idaho, Jeppesen said, has one of the highest proportions of children or residents under the age 18, which might be leading to a lower allotment. He also said that Idaho’s growing population was likely not taken into account.

“It appears that they’re using data that’s not the most recent Census data and being in a rapidly growing state, that (population) number is probably lower than we should be,” he said.

Idaho is relying on its local health districts to coordinate vaccine distribution with providers on the ground.

The Panhandle Health District is working with six hospital and health groups in the five-county region, in addition to offering vaccine clinics hosted by the district itself. As of Tuesday, all vaccine appointments in the Panhandle were filled.

So far, 22,025 doses have been delivered to providers in the Idaho Panhandle, and 14,040 doses have been administered.

Frontline and health care workers, as well as K-12 school and detention facility employees, are already eligible for the vaccine in Idaho and continue to be vaccinated as well.

Hospitals are booking vaccine appointments through their websites, while the Panhandle Health District is asking residents to call (877) 415-5225 to schedule appointments.

Demand is already high. Kootenai Health has already booked all appointments for this week, and it plans to release new appointments on Wednesday.

To get vaccinated in the Panhandle, residents must make an appointment, and county health leaders are asking residents to register for appointments in the county where they live and make just one appointment.

“We know the 65 and older population have been eager to receive the vaccine,” Don Duffy, Health Services Administrator at Panhandle Health District, said in a news release last week. “We also know that this is a large portion of our population and it will take time and effort to administer vaccines to everyone who would like to receive it. We are grateful to have our partners assisting us in this effort.”

Idaho moves to Stage 3 of reopeningLittle’s decision to move Idaho to Stage 3 of its reopening guidelines came after a decline in new cases and hospitalizations since numbers peaked in late November and early December.

In Stage 3, gatherings can be much larger, increasing from 10 to 50.

There are exemptions available for gatherings like weddings that will exceed the 50-person limit, under the new guidelines, and the gathering limit does not apply to religious, political or educational activities.

Restaurants and bars can remain open for their seated capacity, as long as tables are distanced and comply with the state’s guidelines.

Masks are still recommended statewide and are required in long-term care settings.

Despite Idaho’s progress, state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn cautioned residents to not let up on taking precautions, especially in light of new variants confirmed in several states surrounding Idaho.

“Several of our neighboring states have detected the first variant strain, the B.1.1.7 first detected in the United Kingdom,” Hahn said during the governor’s news conference, noting that the variant is likely already in Idaho undetected.

“We should behave as if it’s here and on its way and continue to be vigilant,” she said.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 70 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and no additional deaths. There are 50 Panhandle residents being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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