(Editor’s note: As coronavirus case numbers increase across the nation, the Boston Globe spearheaded a cooperative news and editorial project Wednesday, focused on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. The project, The Last Best Shot, is designed to address fears and concerns about the vaccines, and encourage local dialogue and news coverage. Idaho Education News is among more than 50 newspapers and web publications taking part in the project.)
Now, it’s crunch time.
Facing a new and frightening surge in coronavirus cases, state leaders are ramping up their push for vaccinations. They say COVID-19 vaccines hold the key to keeping schools open and keeping kids in classrooms.
On Monday, Gov. Brad Little’s sense of urgency was readily evident. He kicked off a speech to Treasure Valley business leaders with a direct appeal: Get the jab, or put in-person learning and Idaho’s economic boom at risk. “More vaccinations are our ticket for getting out of the pandemic.”
Science is squarely on Little’s side. He’s running up against a tide of vaccine hesitancy — much of it driven by politics and straight-up misinformation. But after seven months, the science shows that the vaccines are making a difference, and performing as promised.
Here are the numbers. Since January, more than 98 percent of Idaho’s coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths involve patients who were not fully vaccinated. In other words, the vaccines don’t just slow the spread of the virus. They offer quantifiable protection from COVID-19, including the delta variant. “These vaccines are still performing incredibly well,” state epidemiologist Christine Hahn said during a media briefing Tuesday.
But Hahn and other state health officials in Tuesday’s briefing are worried and distressed. Vaccine hesitancy is among their list of concerns. Only 47 percent of eligible Idahoans are fully vaccinated — more than 12 percentage points below the national average. And Idaho’s numbers are even lower in conservative areas of the state such as the Panhandle, lowest among 12- to 17-year-olds, and only somewhat better for college-age students.
The sluggish pace of vaccinations coincides not just with the start of the school year, but with the emergence of the highly contagious coronavirus delta variant. New case numbers have mushroomed over the past six weeks — mostly involving the 1 million or so Idahoans who cannot or will not vaccinate. Case numbers topped 4,000 last week. And that’s all before school season really kicks in, before the advent of flu season, and while county fairs, concerts and other spreader events are in full swing, said Elke Shaw-Tulloch, public health administrator for the state Department of Health and Welfare.
And things could get far worse. New modeling suggests the state could hit 30,000 new cases a week by October, Melissa Davlin of Idaho Public Television’s “Idaho Reports” wrote Monday. That’s nearly triple the state’s weekly peak in case numbers, set in December.
So there’s a reason Idahoans are hearing a push on vaccinations from Little, Idaho’s college and university presidents, and public health leaders. While the vaccines are working, too many Idahoans remain vulnerable to the potent and fast-moving delta variant.
In theory, anyway, vaccines shouldn’t be a partisan issue, even in Idaho. The vaccines were developed under the Operation Warp Speed initiative spearheaded by former President Donald Trump, who received nearly 64 percent of the Idaho vote just nine months ago. Little, a Republican, was elected in 2018 with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
But vaccine hesitancy is a real thing in Idaho — as we’ve seen for years, and as we saw again Tuesday.
Idaho’s vaccine opt-out rates are historically high. In 2019-20, 7.6 percent of Idaho’s kindergartners attended school on some kind of vaccine exemption, the highest rate in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Consequently, Idaho’s kindergarten vaccination rates hovered below 90 percent, lagging behind the national average by more than 5 percentage points.
On Tuesday, Republicans on the Ada County Commission nominated Dr. Ryan Cole to a seat on the Central Health District’s board. A polarizing pathologist, Cole described the COVID-19 vaccines as “needle rape” during a recent conference, James Dawson of Boise State Public Radio reported last week.
Cole isn’t the only person trying to convince Idahoans to fear the vaccine, or the government. Last week, Idaho Freedom Foundation president Wayne Hoffman suggested in a column that there’s “nothing preventing Idaho schools” from mandating student vaccines.
Nothing but the law.
Student COVID-19 vaccines aren’t mandatory in Idaho — or any state, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Idaho parents can opt their kids out of any vaccine the state recommends, as illustrated by the state’s high kindergarten exemption rates. (The Freedom Foundation did not respond to questions about its vaccine mandate claim.)
Really, all Little and other vaccine proponents can do is point to the science and attempt to appeal to Idahoans’ sense of community. And urge anyone on the fence to move quickly.
After all, it takes several weeks for a vaccine to fully kick in. Meanwhile, schools are starting up, and the delta variant isn’t sitting still.
“Getting vaccinated today isn’t going to help us tomorrow, but this is the long haul,” Hahn said. “We’re going to need that help in three or four weeks, in five weeks, when those vaccines start to really be effective.”
It’s not the point of no return, necessarily, but it is crunch time. What happens with vaccinations, right now, will go a long way toward determining what happens this fall in Idaho’s schools, and Idaho’s hospitals.
Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday. In the interest of timeliness, this week’s analysis was published on Wednesday, Aug. 18.
A disclosure, in the interest of transparency. Kevin Richert chose to get the COVID-19 vaccine this spring, when vaccinations became available in his age group. He is also an ex officio member of the Boise Philharmonic board and a singer with the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale; vaccinations are required for chorale singers.