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Idaho Has One Of The Lowest COVID-19 Vaccination Rates. Why?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than half of all Americans have now received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. But in Idaho, it's just over a third. That's among the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Boise State Public Radio's Rachel Cohen reports vaccine demand has nearly come to a halt.

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: On a blistering hot day in Twin Falls, Idaho, Joanna Damey is cooling off with her kids, ages 6 and 3, at a downtown splash park.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

COHEN: She doesn't hesitate when asked her thoughts on the COVID vaccine.

JOANNA DAMEY: I have not gotten it, and I do not plan on it.

COHEN: She had COVID last November, and contracting the virus just isn't a worry for her.

DAMEY: So I feel like my body was able to fight it well, and I don't need to now get a vaccine to help my body with that.

COHEN: The medical community says getting COVID does give some immunity, but it's not clear how long it lasts. A new study suggests that getting vaccinated after recovering from COVID means immunity could last a year or more. A recent state health department survey found about a third of Idahoans say they definitely won't get the vaccine, and weekly vaccination numbers are at their lowest since January.

BASIL ANDERSON: Even though we knew that our community wasn't fully vaccinated, the number of people that were getting vaccinated and that were scheduling to come in dropped precipitously.

COHEN: Dr. Basil Anderson, the medical director for a network of community health centers in the Twin Falls area, says the decline started in late April. After a small rush when the Pfizer vaccine was authorized for kids as young as 12, the health system went from about 500 vaccinations a week to between 10 and 100.

ANDERSON: And that seems to be the perception that most of my patients have coming in is that they are going to have symptoms, and that the drug companies have lied about the number of reactions that actually occur.

COHEN: Anderson explains to his patients that the risk from getting COVID are far greater than potential side effects from the vaccine. For some, that's enough to convince them, but not all.

ANDERSON: And trying to talk them out of that belief is not easy.

COHEN: Adding to the public's perception of low risk from the virus is that despite low vaccination numbers, Idaho hasn't seen a substantial increase in COVID cases or hospitalizations this year.

Back in downtown Twin Falls, 18-year-old Mason Loughmiller, a volunteer firefighter, is part of the wait-and-see crowd.

MASON LOUGHMILLER: When you come up with a vaccine that fast, there's going to be more long-term effects and side effects of it.

COHEN: The Food and Drug Administration says the known benefits of the vaccines outweigh the potential risks. Loughmiller says he'll probably end up getting the vaccine eventually. His fire chief strongly recommended vaccinations. But Loughmiller says even if it was required for work, that might not change his mind.

LOUGHMILLER: Where I'm not too sure how my body would react to it, I wouldn't want to put myself in a harmful position, especially just for a job. You can go find another job anywhere else.

COHEN: This lack of urgency is pervasive in Idaho, and it's left vaccine providers and public health districts wondering what else they can do. They point to clinics they've held at dairy farms, public libraries, school gymnasiums, even one at an upcoming fiddle festival. Here's Dr. Anderson again.

ANDERSON: The limitation is hesitancy at this point. It is not access. It is not the amount of available vaccine.

COHEN: The key is continuing to show up and to the right places, says Herbert Romero, a community organizer in the county with the state's highest vaccination rate. It's home to Sun Valley, and mobile clinics there have drawn hundreds, many of them Latino.

HERBERT ROMERO: People still are hesitant, and they have their reasons. But us being there - in their faith, in their area, in their community - makes a difference.

COHEN: The state health department says it would like Idaho's vaccination numbers to be higher, particularly among 12- through 15-year-olds. And the department says it's offering $9 million worth of grants to organizations that bring vaccines to underserved populations. One thing Idaho hasn't done yet is announce any statewide incentives, though the Department of Health and Welfare says anything is possible.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen in Twin Falls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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