Virus Outbreak Ferries Vaccines

Amber Coole, right, a medical assistant with Peninsula Community Health Services, wears a T-shirt that reads “COVID-19 Vaccine World Tour” as she works in a clinic set up in the galley area of a Washington state ferry sailing from Bremerton, Washington, to Seattle on May 25.

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While having 70% of American adults vaccinated this summer appears likely for the nation, getting that many Idaho adults to accept vaccines is probably the best-case scenario, recent surveys suggest.

The results, from separate surveys conducted in late May by the Kaiser Family Foundation and in late April by a company commissioned by the Idaho health department, suggest that the true proportion of Idahoans who are likely to get vaccinated is lower than initially suspected.

“I actually think that 70% might be higher than I would’ve predicted originally, and I’ll keep some optimism that number will increase as people become more convinced of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine,” said Dr. Kenneth Krell, who directs the intensive care unit at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center and has been outspoken about state and local COVID-19 responses. “But it would be preferable to be back, to be up above 80%. I suppose given Idaho’s politics that’s not bad.”

Dr. David Pate, former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System and an advisor on COVID-19 to Gov. Brad Little, welcomed the news.

“We’re unlikely to achieve ‘herd immunity, but a 70% vaccination rate would avoid significant disruptions to businesses, schools, and hospitals,” Pate said.

According to the latest state data, as of Friday afternoon, 48% of Idaho adults had received at least one vaccine dose, compared to 62% of all American adults. Summarizing the findings of the Kaiser survey, the New York Times reported on Friday that the U.S. “could be on track to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the adult population against COVID-19 by this summer.”

The Post Register obtained the Idaho survey from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Boise-based consulting firm GS Strategy Group interviewed 500 likely voters in Idaho between April 15 and 19, just after federal regulators temporarily halted the use of Johnson & Johnson vaccines to investigate extremely rare blood clots. The survey has a 4.38% margin of error, meaning the true opinions of Idahoans could be skewed that many percentage points either above or below the survey’s results.

“There are about 30% of Idahoans who look like they are very unlikely to get the vaccine, leaving 70% as the best outcome,” a slideshow summarizing the survey’s results said. “Those who say they ‘probably won’t’ get the vaccine will need a lot of encouragement.”

A similar poll in late January found that 79% of Idahoans “would either get the vaccine initially or can be persuaded in the future,” the Post Register previously reported.

The high number of unvaccinated residents in Idaho is composed of a mix of vaccine critics and people who are unaware of key details about the vaccine or have difficulty accessing shots. Residents of rural areas without many if any vaccine clinics are much less likely to be vaccinated than urban residents. Many Idahoans struggle to find time to travel to vaccination sites. And 21% simply don’t know where to get the vaccine, according to the Idaho survey, while 29% are unaware that it’s free to anyone, regardless of insurance status. Six percent of respondents falsely believed that the vaccines cost money.

Especially important to persuading the holdout Idahoans is information proving the vaccine is safe and effective, the pollsters concluded. Messaging that appeals to the health of their at-risk community or family members “may fall flat” with those who are still unvaccinated. Pleas to vaccinate to protect others should be avoided, pollsters said, because it can guilt Idahoans, 68% of whom see vaccination as a personal choice.

Six in 10 respondents agreed that “The side effects from the COVID vaccine might actually be worse than getting COVID itself.” Fifty-one percent agreed that “No one is telling the truth about COVID, they just want me to get the shot.” More than half disagreed with statements that speedier vaccine acceptance will quicken society’s return to normalcy, and that “If enough Idahoans get the COVID vaccine, you won’t have to get it.”

Herd immunity is a threshold that health experts had widely seen as key to controlling the virus. However, many experts now believe society will have to learn to live with the coronavirus, to some degree. The emerging theories stress boosting vaccination, especially for vulnerable people, and controlling localized outbreaks as they surface.

Vaccines are believed to be the best option toward lasting reductions in coronavirus spread. Experts worry that as the coronavirus continues to spread among unvacccinated people, there will be more chances for the virus to mutate into more dangerous forms that could be more severe, infectious or even bypass immunity from vaccination or past infections. The vaccines are believed to be effective against variants currently circulating in Idaho.

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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