Why doesn’t Idaho collect demographic on vaccine recipients? It’s “challenging,” but not illegal.

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

After telling Idaho Reports and the Idaho Statesman that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is legally barred from collecting race and ethnicity data from vaccine recipients, IDHW director Dave Jeppesen told the legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Monday that isn’t the case.

Last week, Idaho Reports and the Idaho Statesman separately asked IDHW why the department doesn’t publish demographic data collection after a CNN report showed that white people are vaccinated at twice the rate as others in 14 states. IDHW officials said that vaccine administrators are legally barred from doing so.

“Idaho’s immunization information system is limited by statute in the mandatory information that we are allowed to collect,” said Sarah Leeds, program manager for the Idaho Immunization Program, during a Tuesday media briefing on the vaccine roll-out in Idaho. Leeds added the ability to collect information “is not as robust as we would like.”

Reporters from both Idaho Reports and the Idaho Statesman reviewed relevant statutes and administrative rules and found no such prohibition. Requests to IDHW for clarification weren’t returned by Monday morning.

On Monday, Rep. Colin Nash asked Jeppesen about the demographic data at an IDHW budget presentation. Jeppesen told the joint budget committee that it’s difficult to collect the data, but made no mention of code preventing the department from doing so.

“Collecting race and ethnicity data is challenging,” Jeppesen told the committee in response to Nash’s question. “There’s several reasons that is challenging.”

The first challenge, Jeppesen said, is that individuals might not want to voluntarily offer up information on their race or ethnicity when receiving the vaccine.

“The second challenge is that our immunization registry…. has the capability to collect that information, but it’s not commonly used,” Jeppesen said.

Racial and ethnic disparities in health care in the United States are well documented, and those inequities tied closely to health outcomes and life expectancy. Understanding now if historically marginalized populations are receiving the COVID-19 vaccine could help health officials further tailor their response and minimize infections.

Like elsewhere in the nation, Hispanic Idahoans have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic. Though about 12 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic, 19 percent of COVID-19 diagnoses have been in Hispanic people, according to the most recent data released by IDHW. In the early months of the pandemic, Hispanic Idahoans made up about a third of diagnosed cases in which ethnicity was known; In some counties, that percentage was as high as 78 percent.

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