This article was written by Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News.
K-12 teachers and staff could begin receiving COVID-19 vaccines by early to mid-January.
College and university employees might have to wait until early to mid-summer.
And even if things go smoothly, it could take upwards of a year before Idaho schools achieve “herd immunity,” when vaccine use is widespread enough to prevent coronavirus spread. So in a Monday interview, State Board of Education leaders said schools need to continue to emphasize the basics: facemask usage, social distancing and hand-washing.
“It’s going to take time to get that vaccine out to everyone,” Executive Director Matt Freeman said.
The rollout could begin in Idaho in December, if Pfizer receives federal authorization to begin distribution. Idaho is in line to receive 90,000 vaccine doses — enough to provide the two shots required for 45,000 residents.
Health care workers would get the first vaccinations. K-12 teachers and staff would fall into the second vaccination wave. That group also includes first responders and other critical workers, Idahoans over the age of 65 and Idahoans with health complications that leave them at higher risk for COVID-19.
While colleges and universities will have to wait on vaccine distribution, they have had other advantages as they have tried to continue normal operations during the global pandemic. Boise State University and the University of Idaho have enough testing capacity to conduct surveillance testing — screening students and staff who don’t have coronavirus symptoms. Campuswide surveillance testing proved instrumental earlier this fall, as the U of I extinguished an outbreak centered in Greek residence housing.
The timetable for the vaccine rollout is unclear — hinging both on regulatory approval and manufacturing capability. Two other vaccine developers, Moderna and AstraZeneca, are expected to apply for federal authorization, which would provide the green light for distribution.
With three potential vaccines on the horizon, states could be able to protect critical populations more quickly. And the variety of different vaccines — all boasting effectiveness rates of 90 percent or higher, in some trials — could also instill skeptics with a booster shot of comfort.
State Board President Debbie Critchfield knows public confidence is crucial, based on her experience from a bitter statewide debate over coronavirus response. “I don’t think we ever recovered from the back and forth on the masks,” she said Monday.
Vaccines are also inherently controversial, too. In normal times, about 7 percent of students attend school without the battery of state-recommended vaccines, because their parents have opted their kids out of vaccinations. The messaging on coronavirus vaccines is make-or-break, Critchfield said.
“It has to be accurate and correct the first time,” she said. “We’re not going to have the luxury of relitigating everything that is put out there.”
During a telephone town hall meeting Tuesday, sponsored by AARP Idaho, Gov. Brad Little and two Department of Health and Welfare officials hailed the early vaccine trial results. State leaders hope Idahoans will eventually be able to get the vaccines through their health care provider. But there will be short-term shortages, both in vaccines and in the deep-refrigeration units needed to store the Pfizer vaccine, and the Idaho National Guard will help in the distribution.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck effort,” said Dr. Christine Hahn, the state’s epidemiologist. “We will have challenges.”