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New COVID-19 strain could require more Idahoans to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity

The strain was identified in Colorado on Tuesday. If it becomes widespread in Idaho, it's possible that more Idahoans would need the vaccine to reach herd immunity.

BOISE, Idaho — Idaho is in the process of vaccinating people against COVID-19. According to the state’s coronavirus website, more than 11,000 people have been vaccinated as of Tuesday night.

Since the vaccine became a reality, health experts have discussed estimates for the percentage of the population that will need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity. 

However, the new, more contagious, COVID-19 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, could require more people to be vaccinated before herd immunity is achieved.

Officials in Colorado on Tuesday announced that they had identified the first case in the US of the new strain. It has already spread to more than a dozen countries, and it is likely to spread within the United States.

There is some concern among health officials in Idaho because the state has a history of lower vaccination rates than much of the country.

According to a report by the CDC in 2019, kindergartners in Idaho were vaccinated at one of the lowest rates in the nation.

The report looked at the MMR, DTaP, and varicella vaccines. All three vaccines were administered to around 88-89% of kindergartners. In a majority of other states, the rates are anywhere from the low to high 90s.

“We have not, as a state, done very well as far as penetration of vaccines,” Saint Alphonsus Executive Medical Director Dr. Patrice Burgess said. “Both for the flu vaccines especially but even some of the other, even childhood vaccines.”

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Burgess is also the chair of the Idaho COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee. She said the committee has discussed the low vaccination rates briefly in the meetings.

“We don't want to be at odds with folks who don't believe in vaccines,” she said. “We really want to get the information out there and help people make good, informed decisions.”

There are a couple of reasons why Idaho has low vaccination rates.

“Some of that is the rural nature of our state and some of that is folks who have concerns and are resistant to vaccines,” she said.

It’s still not completely clear what percentage of Idahoans will need to be vaccinated to reach herd immunity, especially if the new strain becomes widespread.

“A few months ago, we were hopeful that 50-60% might be enough to get some sort of herd immunity," State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said.

But those estimates are changing as medical experts learn more about the strain. 

“Because now, it's easily able to move around so we don't have an answer yet because of that new strain that might force it up a little bit,” she said.

Needing a higher percentage of vaccinations to reach herd immunity is a concern to health experts like Burgess.

“That's one of the several ways we can really slow the spread down and we all want to get back to life as normal,” she said.

One way the state plans to encourage folks to get vaccinated is through education and letting them know it’s safe and effective.

“The data is just really exciting,” Burgess said. "94-95% effectiveness is something we don't see in vaccines very often.”

According to Burgess, Saint Alphonsus has vaccinated more than 50% of their healthcare workers so far. She added that a lot of the hospital's employees are looking at this vaccine as the light at the end of the tunnel.

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