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Idaho official retracts claims that state can’t record racial data of vaccine recipients

COVID-19 vaccine tray
Posted at 3:41 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 17:41:54-05

This article was originally published by Nicole Foy and Audrey Dutton in the Idaho Statesman.

Idaho’s health department is walking back claims that state code makes it impossible to know which groups of Idahoans are receiving coronavirus vaccines.

Last week, state health officials told reporters that state law governing immunizations prevented officials from gathering demographic information such as race, ethnicity or occupation. When Idaho Statesman reporters inquired about the specific law, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesperson Niki Forbing-Orr cited Idaho Code 39-4803 in an email.

But in the Idaho Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Monday, Health and Welfare Director Dave Jeppesen told lawmakers that was not the case, according to an Idaho Reports story. Jeppesen said the state’s vaccine record-keeping system does have the ability to track this demographic information, but it’s not “commonly used,” according to Idaho Reports.

The state has been relying on Idaho’s Immunization Reminder Information System (IRIS) to track the number of COVID-19 vaccine doses given in the state. IRIS is a private registry that medical providers and select others, such as child care providers, can access.

State health officials previously said that under state law, the IRIS registry does not include more than basic details, such as a person’s name, date of birth and vaccination record. Idaho Reports and the Idaho Statesman were unable to find a state law or administrative rule that bars demographic information from being entered into IRIS.

The statute Health and Welfare cited in the email to the Statesman does not preclude the collection of other demographic details that already are listed in the vaccine administration record form, such as country of birth and whether they qualify for a program to vaccinate lower-income children.

In addition, the state’s IRIS user manual lists “race” and “ethnicity” among the data points that can be collected, but says that only some basic data such as date of birth “must” be submitted.

“We believe that those data fields exist in our state immunization registry system,” Jeppesen said Monday in a follow-up email to Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, that was provided to the Idaho Statesman. “However, we are running down if there are any technical or process issues in order for providers to populate that field. We will know more in about 24 hours.”

Jeppeson said another “challenging factor” was that patients cannot be compelled to provide race or ethnicity information.

But that’s not a new challenge. Health districts across the state have struggled to get complete demographic information from people with positive COVID-19 tests since the beginning of the pandemic. Health district officials have cited patient reluctance to answer questions about race, ethnicity or employment, or even provide any information to contact tracers at all.

Health officials are still missing race and ethnicity information for significant numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases, despite large Latino and Hispanic communities across the state.

Roughly 20% of Idahoans who have contracted COVID-19 were Latino, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare data updated Jan. 28. But that’s based on only 83,740 cases for which the race or ethnicity was recorded. State health officials don’t have that information for 48% of COVID-19 cases. Latinos are only 13% of the state’s population.

Demographic data tracking the equitable distribution of vaccines in several areas of the country have already uncovered vast inequities along racial lines. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported low rates of vaccination in primarily communities of color in the South Los Angeles area. The Associated Press and NPR also found that Black and Hispanic residents are getting vaccinated at lower levels than their white counterparts in 17 states and two cities.