What’s the COVID-19 vaccination rate at Idaho’s care facilities? We don’t know.

The state has no authority to gather those records. Federal data give us a glimpse.

By: - June 17, 2021 4:23 am

Starting this week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requires Idaho’s 82 nursing homes to report their vaccination rates. The vaccine data will be reported weekly, the same way the federal government reported nursing home COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths for the past year. But Idaho has about 400 long-term care facilities. Most of them — residential assisted living facilities and group homes for people with disabilities — are state regulated. The new federal rules don’t apply. (Courtesy of Pixabay)

A bare minimum of 10,000 residents and 7,000 staff at Idaho long term care facilities have chosen to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, based on data provided to the Idaho Capital Sun by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.

That’s nearly twice the number of COVID-19 cases that facilities have reported during the pandemic, according to the latest counts from the state.

But the records are very incomplete.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare doesn’t have the authority to require facilities to report their vaccine rates, according to Public Information Manager Niki Forbing-Orr.

The federal government does, though.

Starting this week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services requires Idaho’s 82 nursing homes to report their vaccination rates. The vaccine data will be reported weekly, the same way the federal government reported nursing home COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths for the past year.

But Idaho has about 400 long term care facilities. Most of them — residential assisted living facilities and group homes for people with disabilities — are state regulated. The new federal rules don’t apply.

“There isn’t anything in statute or rule that requires facilities to report, and we can’t just arbitrarily require facilities to do things that the Legislature hasn’t given the department the authority to do,” Forbing-Orr said. “We know this is important, and we are exploring ways we might be able to get facilities to voluntarily report, but we just started those conversations.”

The records don’t show the percentage of staff vaccinated at each facility.

They don’t include facilities that have arranged their own vaccine clinics, or had employees or residents seek vaccines on their own, such as at a doctor’s office or retail pharmacy.

They don’t say how many vulnerable residents — or people caring for them — chose to remain unvaccinated.

And, the department warns, the numbers from the federal program could be wrong, due to human error or another reason. The state has no way of verifying them.

Blind spots in vaccination rates at Idaho’s care facilities

The Idaho Capital Sun requested data from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare that would show the number of vaccinated staff and residents at each facility in the state.

To provide the data, the department pulled total numbers from a federal record-keeping system called Tiberius. That system tracked doses administered at each facility that signed up for a federal program, where pharmacies brought coronavirus vaccines directly to them early this year.

But those numbers include only about 227 of Idaho’s more than 400 nursing homes, residential assisted living facilities and group homes for people with disabilities.

Facilities with 10 or fewer beds were not included, for privacy reasons, according to the department. And some of the numbers could be wrong, if a resident moved to another facility in between doses; or simply because of data errors in the federal system, Forbing-Orr said.

The records do offer a window into what happened in the early days of the coronavirus vaccine rollout in Idaho.

The pharmacy program didn’t operate as expected, in Idaho and other states. Pharmacies showed up with doses to find less desire or need for the shots than expected.

More than 10,000 doses had to be redistributed from the pharmacies to state-run vaccination programs, the Idaho Statesman reported in January.

“As facilities registered for the (vaccine program), they provided an estimate on how many vaccines they would need,” a Walgreens spokesperson told the Idaho Statesman then. “In many cases, they overestimated the number of doses needed due to fluctuations in occupancy levels and the impact of vaccine hesitancy.”

More than 76% of Idahoans 65 and older have now received at least their first dose of the vaccine, according to the latest state COVID-19 vaccine data.

And as the number of people vaccinated has increased, the number of outbreaks in care facilities has plummeted.

Almost all the Idahoans who are now testing positive for COVID-19 are those who haven’t yet been vaccinated, state public health officials say.

Want the COVID-19 vaccine?

Visit vaccine.gov/search to find a clinic or pharmacy offering the vaccine brand you want, at a time that fits your schedule. Many also offer walk-in appointments for COVID-19 vaccines.

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Audrey Dutton
Audrey Dutton

Audrey Dutton, senior investigative reporter, joined the Idaho Capital Sun after 10 years at the Idaho Statesman. Her favorite topics to cover include health care, business, consumer protection issues and white collar crime. Dutton hails from Twin Falls. She attended college at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and received a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City. Before coming home to Idaho, Dutton worked as a journalist in Minnesota, New York, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Dutton's work has earned dozens of state, regional and national awards for investigative reporting, health care and business reporting, radio journalism, data visualization and much more. Her resume also includes fellowships from the Association of Health Care Journalists, Idaho Press Club, Idaho Media Initiative and Investigative Reporters and Editors. Dutton also teaches an upper-division journalism course at Boise State University. She resides in Boise with her husband, young daughter and two cats.

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