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A COVID-19 vaccination success story for Idaho: 1 county's rate is among best in US

Nicole Blanchard, The Idaho Statesman on

Published in News & Features

O'Connor said he thinks that early encounter with COVID-19, which overwhelmed the local hospital for a few weeks, established a sense of trust between medical leaders and the community. It helped that the small county, which is home to roughly 23,000 people, according to 2019 census data, was already quite tight-knit.

"We are a small community and there's common values that extend beyond what is easy to talk about and traditional political divides," O'Connor said. "I think Blaine County and the communities (here) have always prided themselves on the fact that we always kind of know a little bit about one another and we look out for one another."

But not all small communities have fared the same. Some of Idaho's less populated counties have some of its lowest vaccine rates. Idaho, Boise and Owyhee counties each have far fewer residents than Blaine County, and have some of the state's lowest vaccination rates — at 30%, 31% and 35% of eligible residents vaccinated, respectively.

Bodily said local leaders also played a role in Blaine County's vaccine response. Blaine was one of the first places in Idaho where officials implemented mask mandates and it's the only area in Idaho to still have them. (In September, officials at the county level and in multiple towns reinstated the mandates as Idaho entered crisis standards of care.) Local officials have touted research and encouraged vaccines where other Idaho leaders have shared misinformation about COVID and vaccines.

"In some counties in Idaho, what we see is a lot of confusion about whether or not the vaccine is safe," Bodily said. "When leaders question the validity or safety of a vaccine or health care process, the natural consequence would be that individuals who look to them for guidance would also question it. In Blaine County, most elected leaders and thought leaders supported public health (messaging)."

Community members have also continued to advocate for COVID outreach, Bodily said. They've organized mobile vaccine clinics and identified areas of the community where vaccines haven't been been as easy to access or as readily embraced.

 

"Even with such a high vaccine rate, we're still talking to community members that say, 'This is an area that needs better access. How can we provide better access?'" she said.

O'Connor emphasized that there are still communities in Blaine County with vaccination rates that mirror the rest of Idaho's.

"Those are more vulnerable patients in a lot of ways, so we're definitely not out of the woods," O'Connor said.

Officials are hopeful that Blaine County's community effort can serve as a blueprint to boost vaccination rates in Idaho, but Bodily said it won't be simple.

"Some of the other things we can't replicate — their demographics, the unfortunate experience they had at the early part of pandemic," she said.

(c)2021 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.