Public health board member supports long-time immunization tracking system

By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports

As lawmakers discuss how wary they are of immunizations and programs used to track vaccines, some public health board members are standing up for data collection.

Central District Health’s Board of Health met Friday morning and board member Dr. Ted Epperly addressed the issue. Epperly proposed writing a letter to the Legislature, Gov. Brad Little, and the Idaho Department of Health of Welfare in support of IRIS, a program used to track residents’ immunizations. 

“IRIS is, as you know, sadly under assault in the legislature,” he said. “I can tell you as a provider… that we use the IRIS system all the time to continue to be aware of the vaccination status of our patients.  Not only with the COVID vaccine, but more importantly with all the other vaccines we get.”

Epperly said IRIS is especially useful when patients cannot remember which vaccines their children have received, or how long ago they received the first dose of a two-dose vaccine, such as the shingles vaccine. Providers also use it to check on a person’s tetanus status if a person gets a laceration and can’t remember the last time they received a tetanus shot.

Epperly said IRIS has been in use for two decades, and it is not a program developed just to cover COVID-19. 

Retail pharmacies also use IRIS, so physicians are aware of vaccinations that their patients received at a pharmacy. 

“The IRIS system is invaluable to us as a tool to help physicians and clinicians with their patients,” Epperly said.

On April 9, Republican legislative leadership from the Idaho House and Senate issued a statement saying they “received credible information that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare  is and has been registering the immunization status of Idaho adults for years.”

The majority party reported that several members of the Legislature requested their own personal records that may have been reported to IRIS to trace the reporting of COVID-19 vaccines.  These requests resulted in multiple reports listing adult vaccination records for multiple different vaccines over multiple years.

In the April 9 press release, leadership opposed IRIS. 

“We believe that Health and Welfare should cease these adult vaccination registration activities into IRIS and that they remove any adult information they’ve collected, over the years” said President Pro Tempore Sen. Chuck Winder, of Boise. “This registry is intended to protect Idaho children and instead it’s being used to collect Idahoans’ health information without their knowledge.”

Leadership asked the Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to investigate IDHW’s actions around IRIS.

“The Office of the Attorney General has received the letter from legislative leadership,” AG’s spokesperson Scott Graf told Idaho Reports. “The office takes seriously the concerns raised and is analyzing the issue.”

In response to the allegations from lawmakers, IDHW Director Dave Jeppesen issued a statement. 

“I appreciate the interest in patient privacy from Republican Legislative Leadership and share their goal that patient privacy is a top priority,” Jeppesen wrote. “However, I am confident that the Department of Health and Welfare has complied with state and federal law for many years and currently is in compliance with regard to collecting adult and children’s immunization data.” 

Central District Health Director Russ Duke said he would prepare a presentation for the board on IRIS at the next meeting.

CDH board member Raúl Labrador said he had not been following the IRIS dispute, and requested a presentation before drafting a letter.

“I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with you, Dr. Epperly, I would just like to be better informed,” Labrador said in the meeting.

Epperly agreed with Labrador’s suggestion. 

“I cannot stand by and watch the dismantling of a two-decade old tool that is extremely helpful to the providers and patients in this state,” Epperly said.

Central District Health includes Ada, Boise, Valley and Elmore counties. 

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