The new COVID-19 vaccine is available in Idaho, while the coronavirus spreads around the state more than usual lately.
The uptick in spread is nowhere near as sharp as huge spikes during the pandemic. But experts still say it’s worth getting the new vaccine to avoid the inconveniences of isolation and health woes of serious cases.
Dr. Christine Hahn, Idaho’s epidemiologist, in an interview this week, likened the current state of COVID-19 to past fall seasons, as peaks approached. It’s unclear what’ll happen from here, but she said officials are hopeful that the uptick in hospitalizations and deaths has leveled off lately.
“We are nowhere near some of the past waves that got so severe with hospitals reporting that they were completely full. We aren’t seeing schools or day cares shutting down,” Hahn said. “We’re not as severe as we’ve seen in the past. But we are worried about the increase, and we don’t know where it’s headed right now.”
Why get the new COVID-19 vaccine?
The new COVID-19 vaccine boosters — recommended for Americans older than six months — helps prevent severe disease and death from the latest circulating variants of COVID-19.
Public health experts say the vaccine is still a crucial tool in defending yourself and your community against the virus and its new variants that the vaccine protects against.
For Dr. David Peterman, a pediatrician and former CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, COVID-19 prevention measures are partly about public health and partly about practicality.
“This vaccine, like all vaccines, is given to you to prevent you from getting sick,” Peterman said.
Although rare, some people get severely ill from COVID-19 and die, Peterman said. And, he notes, an infection can mean missed time from work or school.
“If your kid gets COVID, who’s gonna take care of them for 10 days?” he said. “That usually means that you’re out of work for 10 days.”
Side effects of the vaccine are rare, said Dr. Sky Blue, an infectious disease doctor in Boise.
“In general, with the millions of vaccine doses we’ve given, the true rate of side effects, although real, have been exceedingly low. And whenever looked at, have been much, much lower than getting the infection itself,” Blue said.
Where to get the new vaccine in Idaho
The new vaccine is expected to be free for people with insurance. Free vaccines are also available for uninsured people through sites — such as local health care providers, health centers and pharmacies — participating in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Bridge Access Program.
You can find local sites offering the new vaccine near you on vaccines.gov, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare says. Sites participating in the free shot program are noted online.
Primary Health is offering the vaccine at 20 walk-in clinics in the Treasure Valley, the medical group announced in a news release last week. Parents looking to get their kids and themselves vaccinated can visit Meridian Pediatrics at 3208 E. Lanark Drive or Nampa Pediatrics at 700 Caldwell Blvd.
Most Walgreens have enough vaccines to schedule appointments, a company spokesperson confirmed last week. Additional appointments are being made available as supply increases, the spokesperson said. The pharmacy is aware some appointments needed to be rescheduled because of supply delays, the spokesperson said.
“For those impacted stores, we have paused online scheduling, and we are working to ensure impacted customers have been contacted to secure an alternative appointment,” the Walgreens spokesperson said. “Patients are encouraged to schedule an appointment or call ahead to confirm vaccine availability. “
St. Luke’s Health System is working to offer the most current vaccine at its clinics, spokesperson Christine Myron said.
Stat News reported last week that while pharmacy chains may have vaccine doses, doctors’ offices or independent pharmacies may have to wait longer to get the vaccines.
Vaccines.gov lists appointment availability in Walgreens, Sav-On, Fred Meyer, Rite Aid and Walmart pharmacies throughout the Treasure Valley. Only vaccine providers who receive vaccines through the federal Bridge Access Program are required to update their inventory into the federal vaccine website, state health department spokesman Greg Stahl told the Idaho Capital Sun.
If you get infected or exposed to COVID-19, the CDC’s Isolation and Exposure Calculator can guide you through recommended isolation times.
Free COVID-19 at-home test kits are available from the federal government online. Households can order four free tests.
What’s the COVID-19 situation like now in Idaho?
Daily data on COVID-19 cases are no longer being reported. That leaves data on hospitalizations, emergency room visits, deaths and the virus’s prevalence in wastewater as indicators of the coronaviruses impact.
At least two key metrics — hospitalizations from COVID-19 and the concentration of COVID-19 in wastewater — identify a rise in the virus that’s shy of previous peaks in 2022 and 2021, but enough to identify an uptick.
Hospitalizations have risen since late July, but appear to remain steady over the past month, with 46 patients in Idaho hospitals as of Sept. 4 and 48 patients as of Sept. 24, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
While current hospitalization rates are higher than this summer and slightly below late spring 2022, the rates still pale in comparison to much of the pandemic’s sharp peaks in 2022 and previous years, when hospitalizations peaked in January 2022 with 614 on a single day and in September 2021 with 793 hospitalizations. Last year ended with 131 hospitalizations on a single day.
“The increase in cases has started to level off or decline,” said Blue, who added that levels are still higher than they have been all summer, when about two dozen people were in the hospital each day in much of June. This summer’s hospitalization rates were similar to hospitalization rates in late spring 2020 and 2022.
Hahn said officials can’t predict how the uptick will pan out.
“Most infectious disease experts think COVID is here for now, and it’s going to be here for many years. Start to think of it as another flu-like virus,” Hahn said, referencing data from the CDC that indicates COVID-19 is landing more people across the country in the hospital than the flu right now.
“It doesn’t have to be a pandemic in order for it to be important and something we want to protect ourselves from,” Hahn said.
Dr. Martha Buitrago, an infectious disease doctor in eastern Idaho, said the true level of COVID-19 spread in the community is unknown, cautioning that many cases are left publicly unreported from at-home testing.
Hahn said cases weren’t the most exact metric, since some people didn’t test for the virus.
“Statewide, the wastewater data is telling us that there’s a re-emergence or an uptick in cases,” said Erik Coats, an engineer at University of Idaho. Coats is helping run a COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program involving 30 wastewater systems throughout the state that provides a barometer into how the virus is spreading among 800,000 Idahoans in collaboration with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Idaho Bureau of Laboratories.
While wastewater data doesn’t translate directly into COVID-19 cases or predict the severity of illness, Coats said wastewater data lets people look at broad COVID-19 trends in their communities.
If concentration in wastewater data starts to increase, that could indicate that an outbreak is increasing, he said. And in areas across Idaho — like Coeur d’Alene, Moscow and Boise — wastewater levels are high compared to this summer, he said.
So, why be cautious?
It’s partly about protecting yourself.
And it’s partly about protecting vulnerable people in your community.
“We are surrounded by people who can get pretty sick from COVID. What we have learned from previous outbreaks, it’s a matter of being a good member of the society. … We do it because we want to prevent others from getting serious side effects” from having COVID, Buitrago said.
Although cases are not as high as they once were now compared to the height of the pandemic, “I don’t think we have to wait until we have a disaster to act,” Buitrago said.
But it isn’t just about COVID-19. The seasons for flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, to spread are approaching fast. Vaccines are available for all three viruses, including a new RSV vaccine for older people and those who are pregnant.
People most vulnerable to severe illness for these three viruses overlap, including adults 65 and older, people who are immune compromised or have lung conditions and people who are pregnant, according to Harvard Health.
“I would be looking at this upcoming season with this wide view of what you can do to protect yourself across the board with those respiratory viruses,” Blue said, adding that health officials said it’s safe to take all three vaccines at the same time.
Many Americans have been vaccinated. And many people have already been infected with COVID-19. Combined vaccine protection and exposure to the virus means, Peterman said, that the population is less vulnerable to COVID-19, barring new variants.
Peterman suggests getting the COVID-19 vaccine while you’re at the doctor, not waiting until COVID is spreading more throughout the community, because building up antibodies takes two to three weeks.
What we learned from the pandemic still applies, Buitrago said. That includes washing your hands, staying away from people if you’re sick, seeking help when sick, wearing a mask, testing at home, and seeking medication like paxlovid to prevent severe COVID-19 infection, she said.
“We’ve been here before,” Buitrago said.