Monday, November 29, 2021
Nov. 29, 2021

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Idaho’s Blaine County outlier in state as COVID-19 success story


BOISE, Idaho — According to health experts and data, Idaho has one of the lowest vaccination rates for COVID-19 in the country. Current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers show that about 43 percent of the state’s total population is vaccinated, higher than only West Virginia.

But one Idaho county is a major outlier from the state’s low rates. The statewide percentage of eligible Idahoans fully vaccinated is only about 54 percent, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, but Blaine County’s vaccination rate for the same group is 86.8 percent.

Local doctors and health district officials said the high vaccination rate can be attributed in part to the county’s demographics, such as age and political affiliation, which have been shown nationwide to have ties to vaccine uptake. But experts said they think there’s more at play.

“Really it’s a community effort up there,” said Brianna Bodily, spokesperson for South Central Public Health District. “They felt the pains of the pandemic early on. They learned how to come together to fight.”

Blaine County is an Idaho anomaly in a few ways that may have influenced its vaccination rate. It’s the most politically left-leaning county in the state — a factor that has been linked with higher vaccine uptake. It’s also home to some of Idaho’s wealthiest residents. Research has shown that wealthier people are more likely to be vaccinated, often because of improved access to health care.

Bodily also said the county has a larger population of people 65 or older than other Idaho counties. That demographic has been the most apt to embrace the COVID-19 vaccine, as it’s also one of the demographics most at risk from the disease. Across Idaho, 78.7 percent of people 65 and older have been vaccinated, according to IDHW. In the same group in Blaine County, 99.9 percent of people are vaccinated, according to CDC data.

The popular tourist destination, home to Sun Valley ski resort and the town of Ketchum, was known as a COVID-19 hot spot early on in the pandemic. The surge of cases meant the small county had one of the highest case rates in the world for some time.

Like Bodily, Dr. Terry O’Connor, an emergency physician at St. Luke’s Wood River, thinks enduring that early scare drew the community together and paved the way for increased vaccine uptake.

“Everybody was scared initially because there was such little information (on COVID) and … there was a real dearth of misinformation, actually,” O’Connor said in a video interview. “(People) just turned to trusted community members who happened to be physicians.”

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 county, home to roughly 23,000 people, according to 2019 census data, was already quite tight-knit.

“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,” O’Connor said.

Bodily said 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. Local officials have touted research and encouraged vaccines where other Idaho leaders have shared misinformation about COVID and vaccines.