POCATELLO — Dr. Richard Fellows took a short break in the midst of performing a root canal on Monday morning so he and his dental team could receive eagerly awaited shots of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Workers from Maag Prescription Center & Medical Supply paid Fellows’ staff a house call. They’re among 15 community partners of Southeastern Idaho Public Health enrolled in the federal Operation Warp Speed program that have been traveling the community to administer vaccines to high-priority groups.
“We’ve had concerns. I’m concerned,” Fellows said after getting his shot. “We’re definitely one of the highest as far as risk of getting COVID because of the situation we’re in.”
Southeastern Idaho Public Health has also been administering vaccines at its Pocatello building. Department officials say they’re seeking a larger location for their clinics in preparation for when crowds of people in need of their first vaccine shot will intermingle with people coming in for their second and final vaccine shot. The shots must be given 21 or 28 days apart, depending on the type of vaccine.
Initially, priority for receiving the vaccine was given to Idaho health care personnel, including dental workers, and long-term care facility residents. On Jan. 12, Gov. Brad Little made a surprise announcement immediately making additional populations eligible — including pre-kindergarten through 12th grade staff and teachers, childcare workers, first responders and correctional and detention staff not already included as health care personnel.
Pocatello-Chubbuck School District 25 learned about the governor’s decision when it was announced to the general public Tuesday afternoon, but district spokeswoman Courtney Fisher said they started making preparations with Southeastern Idaho Public Health to give vaccines last week.
Fisher said the district intends to offer vaccination clinics for its staff both this Friday and next Friday and will communicate details internally with staff about how to sign up. She said the district will continue to schedule additional clinics as more doses become available. Fisher said the governor’s announcement makes it more likely that teachers will have both shots before the district’s March 1 target date of returning to its usual in-person instruction schedule.
Little also announced the state will expedite eligibility for adults 65 years of age and older to early February.
The vaccine should be available to the general public in May.
The vaccine couldn’t arrive soon enough for Fellows and his staff, who were relieved to receive it so early in the rollout. Fellows said a couple of staff members contracted COVID-19 and experienced only mild symptoms. They too, were vaccinated at the urging of health officials, who are still uncertain how long antibodies may confer resistance to people who have already recovered from the coronavirus.
Fellows will continue with the safety protocols he’s implemented at his office, including taking temperatures of patients, asking them to sanitize their hands before visits and having patients wait in their car when the lobby is too full. While some patients have thanked him for taking the safeguards, others have offered him a few choice words and stormed out of his office.
The health pandemic has cut into Fellows’ bottom line. Fellows had to shut down his office for seven weeks, except for emergency cases, last spring and summer due to the coronavirus.
“You don’t ever reach your break-even when you’re seeing just a couple of emergencies here and there,” Fellows said. “I think it’s typical of a lot of small businesses.”
He said the coronavirus has also made it challenging to maintain a proper schedule of patients.
“We’ll come in and the schedule will be packed and the next day it’s completely empty because people either have symptoms or they think they might have symptoms and they’ve been exposed,” Fellows said.
Southeastern Idaho Public Health Director Maggie Mann said at least 3,000 shots have been given to date throughout the eight-county district — mostly first doses. Mann said her department has been receiving hundreds of calls from people interested in getting the vaccine. She encouraged people to sign up at siphidaho.org to alert them when they become eligible for the vaccine and where to get it. She also encouraged people to check with their employers in case their workplaces are planning clinics.
“We’re getting a limited number (of vaccines) every week. We find out on Thursday or Friday what we’ll be getting the following week. It’s not a lot,” Mann said, adding it’s tough to track exactly how many vaccines have arrived in the area because vaccines are shipped directly to participating community partners.
Mann has been encouraged by a recent trend of declining new confirmed COVID-19 cases within Southeast Idaho. New cases peaked during the week of Nov. 29, when there were 553 new cases within the district. They dropped to 480 new cases during the week of Dec. 6, 417 new cases during the week of Dec. 13 and 278 new cases during the week of Dec. 20. They’ve risen slightly since then, reaching 294 cases during the week of Dec. 27 and 313 cases during the week of Jan. 3.
“We were relieved to see a little bit of a downward trend over the holidays. We also know the number of people tested was significantly reduced,” Mann said. “We’re hopeful it’s a decrease, but it hasn’t been long enough (to determine that).”
Idaho State University student pharmacists are among the community partners assisting with giving vaccinations locally.
An ISU press release explained they’re trained for administering immunizations in their first week of pharmacy school and require no additional training to give vaccines. Throughout Idaho, about 40 student pharmacists are already administering COVID vaccines in hospitals and at health clinics in the Treasure Valley, Coeur d’Alene and Idaho Falls. Student pharmacists will soon offer their assistance in the Magic Valley, Pocatello and additional facilities in the Treasure Valley.
“In the next few days, student pharmacists will help administer COVID-19 vaccine at Albertsons locations around Idaho as well,” the ISU press release stated.
Student pharmacists have also been giving vaccines in Anchorage, Alaska, where the university has had a collaborative pharmacy program with the University of Alaska Anchorage for five years.