Gov. Brad Little COVID presser

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn speaks to members of the media during a press conference at the Idaho Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020.

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A vaccine advisory panel is expected to tell the Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Friday whether the state should let more aging Idahoans, who are dying at high rates, to access COVID-19 shots soon.

If the state allows Idahoans 65 and older to be included in the next vaccine priority group, which includes frontline essential workers, Idaho would be rejecting federal recommendations on COVID-19 vaccine priority groups. The Centers for Disease Control recently recommended people over 75 years old should get the vaccine in the next phase, referred to as “1b,” which is anticipated to begin in February and includes frontline essential workers such as grocery store clerks and K-12 teachers.

The Idaho panel could decide to move that age down to 65 instead of 75; it’s a topic that’s being hotly debated in states across the country. Without a change, Idahoans 65 and older may receive the vaccine starting in April, according to state projections.

“That’s exactly what we’re going to be asking them to weigh in on,” said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, public health administrator for the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, during a media call about the state’s vaccine rollout on Tuesday.

Dr. Christine Hahn, state epidemiologist, said, “The advisory committee could decide that they want to put 65 and older before those front-line essential workers. We’re going to present them with the information and the option, and then have a discussion.”

Earlier Tuesday, seniors from around the state peppered Little and state health Director Dave Jeppesen with questions about not including Idahoans aged 65 and older in the next phase.

“Shouldn’t we vaccinate those most likely to get the virus and die from it?” asked Frank in Eagle, during the governor’s biweekly statewide call-in with AARP of Idaho. “Apparently Texas and Florida have realized this, and my question is why not Idaho?”

“Idaho’s current plan doesn’t vaccinate members of the general public 65 years and older until April,” he said, putting “food processing workers, convenience store workers … before people who are actually getting the virus and dying from it.”

Currently, Idaho is vaccinating its top-priority group: Health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. The state hopes to finish up that group by the end of January, but that’s only if the 130,000 necessary doses of vaccine arrive in time.

Jeppesen said there’s a “delicate balance of managing a limited supply of vaccine,” between “the most vulnerable populations and those that are most likely to be spreading the disease, and that are needed to make sure our economy continues to run.”

In the call with reporters Tuesday, Idaho’s top health leaders urged that more information is coming about the four-pronged vaccine campaign that they hope will result in widespread access this summer.

Shaw-Tulloch said the state expects to receive 20,000 new doses each week, while the federal government holds the same amount weekly for the recommended second doses of Pfizer and Modern’s vaccine; those should be taken three or four weeks after the first.

At that rate, Idaho will have only received 1 million doses by mid-June, not enough for the roughly 1.8 million residents who may want it. State health department Director Dave Jeppesen said faster manufacturing and the approval of new shots will be crucial to reaching herd immunity against COVID-19.

Hahn said experts now estimate the emergence of a new, more infectious strain of COVID-19 means 80% of people may need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

Once the vaccines are in Idaho, medical providers are encouraged, but not required, to abide by the four-stage distribution plan that a state panel of experts and the governor’s office are developing, Shaw-Tulloch said.

“The way the vaccines are being rolled out, we definitely want to stay as true as possible, and we are asking our providers to stay as true to the phase that we’re working on,” she said. “... We can’t police every single provider that’s out there giving the vaccine. We are educating and doing our best to make sure we are staying consistent.”

To date, the state has received more than 83,000 doses; just under 21,000 have been administered, and 13,650 are dedicated as second doses. Shaw-Tulloch said there may be delays after health care providers receive vaccine doses until when they inject the shot.

“Lots of logistics go into setting up those clinics,” she said. Providers must be trained on how to safely administer the shot, she said. And after shots are given, she said there’s an up to 72-hour delay until they are included in public state data.

The mRNA COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which don’t contain the whole live coronavirus, can expire. State immunization director Sarah Leads said the state has received “very few reports of” vaccine waste; she did not say how many. She called distribution of the complex vaccine “a huge success.”

On new vaccine information, state health leaders say they are releasing this week a separate data dashboard for vaccinations; currently, only the number administered are being reported on, which houses in-depth virus information.

Health leaders say they will use social media, news media and individual vaccine providers to notify people when people in their priority group can begin receiving the vaccine. Southeastern Idaho Public Health District, in Pocatello, has allowed people to sign up for email notifications.

Hahn said health leaders are also hoping to collect information about the number of people who decline the vaccine, and their reasons, to inform future outreach efforts.

The vaccine rollout in Idaho has coincided with a decline in cases and hospitalizations, alleviating strain hospitals that worried some experts about a looming resource crisis. Last week, a federal report showed that several COVID-19 indicators, such as hospitalizations and test positivity rates, were improving in Idaho.

Officials warn that the fight against the virus is not finished.

“We are in the final stretch, but this is going to be a challenge,” Little said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort.”

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.