Who is getting vaccinated? Census data offers some clues.

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Idaho counties with the highest rates of COVID-19 vaccination so far are some of Idaho’s wealthiest, while the counties with the lowest rates have significant Hispanic populations, according to data released Tuesday by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

Vaccination rates by county as of Feb. 5, 2021. Source: Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, coronavirus.idaho.gov

But it’s hard to tell exactly who in those counties has received the vaccine because IDHW is not tracking the ethnicity or other demographic information of those vaccinated.

On Tuesday, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare released county-by-county vaccination rates. Without demographic information, those county rates, coupled with Census figures and other data sets, give a bit of insight, albeit imperfect, into who is receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and who isn’t.

One takeaway: Many of the counties with the highest vaccination rates also have the lowest percentage of residents who are living in poverty. On Friday, Blaine County had one of the highest vaccination rates in Idaho, with 13.3 percent of residents vaccinated. Blaine also has the lowest percentage of residents living in poverty, at 7 percent.

Several of the counties with low vaccination rates also have a high Hispanic population. In Owyhee County, where 26.6 percent of residents are Hispanic, just 3.9 percent are vaccinated. In Clark County, 4.8 percent of residents are vaccinated, and 42 percent are Hispanic. 

In Valley County, 16.1 percent of its residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine on Friday, the highest in the state. Just 8.4 percent live in poverty, the third lowest in Idaho, and only 4.4 percent of residents are Hispanic. Camas and Ada counties are also in the top five most vaccinated, and are also on the top ten list of lowest poverty rates. Each reports a Hispanic population of less than 10 percent. 

The correlation isn’t exact — Teton County has the second lowest poverty rate, but has a comparatively low percentage of vaccinated residents. And of course, correlation isn’t the same as causation. But overall, the more vaccinated residents a county in Idaho has, the fewer residents tend to live in poverty. The more Hispanic residents a county has, the fewer tend to be vaccinated. 

Elsewhere in the nation, disparities in vaccine distribution are well documented. White people are twice as likely to be vaccinated as Black and Hispanic people in 14 states that track race and ethnicity in vaccine recipients, according to a CNN analysis.

In late January, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare officials said they were legally prohibited from collecting that demographic information, but after reporting from Idaho Reports and the Idaho Statesman, IDHW Director Dave Jeppesen said that wasn’t the case after all. 

“After further investigation, it became clear that the Idaho statute does not prohibit (IDHW) from gathering that information,” Jeppesen said during a Tuesday media briefing on vaccine distribution. However, “there is no statutory authority for the department or health care providers to mandate that patients provide race and ethnicity information. It’s optional for patients to provide this information.”

Until Monday, only Idahoans in long-term care facilities and in certain occupations, such as school employees and health care workers, could get vaccinated. Idaho Reports couldn’t find information on how many health care workers and K-12 employees live in each county, but did obtain information on the number of schools and how many workers are employed at each hospital in communities across the state. Nothing in those data sets fully explained or lined up with the disparities between the vaccination rates in some counties.

Public health districts received an allotment of doses based on population, Jeppesen said, but it wasn’t clear how those doses were doled out to residents of certain counties.

The disparities are most stark in Public Health District 5. While Blaine and Camas are in the top five most vaccinated counties, Lincoln County, immediately to the south, reported just 2.9 percent of its residents are vaccinated on Friday. That’s the lowest in the state. Lincoln County’s population is 29 percent Hispanic, according to the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs. 

Though the state doesn’t have widespread demographic data on vaccine recipients, Jeppesen said IDHW’s priority is equal access, regardless of race, wealth, or geographic location. Now that Idaho is vaccinating the general population older than 65, access issues may become more apparent — especially as some of those Idahoans may not have reliable Internet to make appointments, or transportation to health care clinics, or the English language fluency to find relevant information. 

“That’s the place we’re going to have to be extra diligent,” Jeppesen said. 

Devon Downey contributed to this report.

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