Idaho continues to fall behind the national pace with its COVID-19 vaccination rate, imperiling the state’s potential to put the pandemic in its rear-view mirror for good, according to physicians.
In fact, for each age group that’s become eligible for the vaccine, Idaho’s rate has lagged the U.S. average by at least 10 percentage points. And the paltry number of teenagers receiving the shots has doctors concerned.
In mid-May, Americans age 12-15 could start getting the Pfizer shots. This put 17 million new people — about 5% of the U.S. population — into the vaccination pool, increasing the potential to get a little closer to herd immunity, which would require at least three-fourths of the population, and probably more, to be vaccinated.
But in Idaho, the rates are unimpressive, and they trail national numbers that are not overwhelming.
Only 14% of Idaho’s 12-15-year-old population is partially vaccinated, according to the Department of Health and Welfare. Nationally, over 24% of that age group has received at least one shot, according to demographic data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The number is only somewhat higher for 16-17-year-olds, nearly 25% of whom are partially vaccinated. Nationally, that figure is 39%.
“It’s very disappointing,” David Peterman, a pediatrician who is CEO of Primary Health Medical Group, told the Idaho Statesman by phone.
After peaking near the middle of April, vaccination rates across all age groups have been plummeting nationwide. As the country pursues that ever-elusive herd immunity — which most experts and doctors now acknowledge is unrealistic — health professionals consider expanding vaccine eligibility and reach to be vital.
But if people refuse vaccinations, the virus may not be stopped.
“The less people we have vaccinated, the more potential we have for this to linger and to smolder,” Ted Epperly, president and CEO of the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho and a Central District Health board member, told the Statesman by phone.
At his practice, which has 3,224 patients between the ages of 12 and 17 at clinics throughout the Treasure Valley, only 366 have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine. That’s 11%.
“Kids in many ways are just a reflection of their parents’ attitudes,” Epperly said. “If parents are vaccine-hesitant or are speaking negatively about COVID-19 or the COVID-19 vaccines, I think that’s going to be reflected in kids’ vaccination rates.”
Primary Health has 20 clinics in the Treasure Valley, all of which are offering walk-in appointments for anyone 12 or older.
“When (eligibility) was opened up to 12 to 15s, we had a rush,” Peterman said. “We were doing 400 or 500 kids a day, but then that started to tail off.”
Now, Primary Health’s clinics are vaccinating about 200 people a day. Earlier in the pandemic, they were vaccinating over 1,000 adults every day, Peterman said.
Overall, about 34% of Idahoans are fully vaccinated now. That figure is roughly 43% nationally. Even for partial vaccination, Idaho’s rate sits at just about 38%, according to Health and Welfare data.
For adults 65 and older, 75.9% have received at least one dose in Idaho, which trails the national average of 86.6%. For all other adults, the state’s rate is 49.5%, far behind the national average of 64.1%.
Peterman said that when it comes to vaccinations for children, many parents he interacts with fall into three groups: those who are resistant to inoculating their kids in general; those who are eager to have their children vaccinated; and those who generally vaccinate their children but are resistant to the COVID vaccines.
Though he expected the first two groups, the size of the third group has surprised Peterman.
“I’ve never encountered something like this before as a pediatrician,” he said.
Peterman estimated that 30-35% of his patients are “parents who give their children their normal childhood immunizations, but for a lot of different reasons, they are hesitant about COVID vaccines.”
The COVID-19 pandemic gets politicized
Peterman said this hesitancy is partially attributable to the political influence on public health measures and the politicization of the entire coronavirus pandemic.
“The massive amount of political decision-making on treating a very serious disease and the huge amount of misinformation has made it challenging for doctors to explain (the science) to their patients,” he said.
“It’s just a shame that we have local and county politicians making recommendations about public health and vaccines when, frankly, they don’t have the training ... We have to, at some point, trust our doctors and people who have done research (into) what is best for our adults, our children, our elderly.”
Though Epperly said he’s noticed that some residents are driven by ideological thinking — Kaiser Family Foundation surveys indicate that more than 80% of Democrats nationwide say they have received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to 49% of Republicans — many parents might have other things on their mind.
“When it comes to subjecting their children to this, what I believe is more significant is their concern about safety,” he said.
The Pfizer vaccine, currently the only one approved for use in children in the U.S., received “emergency use authorization” from the FDA rather than full approval. One difference is that this authorization, which can happen faster, requires two months of follow-up safety and efficacy data, versus the minimum of six months that is usually needed for full approval. All three of the vaccines currently authorized in the U.S. applied for emergency authorization because of the pandemic.
To receive authorization, drug manufacturers must show that a vaccine’s benefits outweigh any risks. Though the benchmarks are rigorous, this could make some parents nervous.
The vaccines are “less than a year old, and I think a lot of people, rightly or wrongly, are concerned or anxious about, ‘Is it safe?’” Epperly said. About a third of unvaccinated adults say that full FDA approval would make them more likely to get the shots, according to the Kaiser study.
Pfizer applied for full approval from the FDA for those 16 and older in May, while Moderna applied for full approval only for adults. The process is expected to take months for FDA review.
And on Thursday, Moderna applied for authorization of its vaccine in adolescents, which is expected to be granted in the coming weeks.
“As a 42-year-experienced physician, I feel very comfortable that this is a safe vaccine,” Epperly said. “In fact, I’m very impressed what the data has shown about its safety and its efficacy.”
Peterman noted that hundreds of millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine have been administered all over the world, “with very, very few side effects.”
“It is unbelievable how good these vaccines are. If you put that all together, it’s disappointing that parents are not getting their kids vaccinated,” he said.
There are teenagers stepping up, though. In May, for instance, a group in McCall went to get vaccinated together at a St. Luke’s clinic.
“I feel a lot better knowing that I’m safer, because every time I’d go out in a public space, I’d be scared to get it,” Gabi Green, a student at McCall-Donnelly High School, told health care workers at St. Luke’s. “If you get (the vaccine) then we can actually do our sports next year and do certain events that we didn’t get to this year.”
Adeline Bush, a student at Payette Lakes Middle School, said she wanted to get the vaccine “early on, because I didn’t want to make my friends and family sick, and also just to keep myself healthy.”
Adeline said she would tell her friends about being vaccinated. “I’m not sure it’ll maybe change their minds, but I’ll at least tell them that I got it.”
Peterman said he has sympathy for parents who are being misled when it comes to political persuasion.
“This has nothing to do with the Constitution or freedom ... If I tell you today, this restaurant has Hepatitis A, and the health department closes it down, I don’t think based on who you voted for you’re going to want to eat at that restaurant,” he said. “What difference does it make who you voted for if a restaurant has hepatitis? I’m not eating there, and neither are you.”