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University of Iowa researchers and public health groups have received a $500,000 federal grant to find ways to improve the COVID-19 vaccination rates in Iowa’s smallest communities.
The yearlong project will focus on 17 communities, with researchers working with community residents in creating strategies that overcome barriers and encourage residents to seek the vaccine.
“We’ve only got a year,” said Natoshia Askelson, project lead and assistant professor of community and behavioral health at the UI College of Public Health. “And we are in this race against the virus. We have to get people vaccinated before the virus mutates.”
The project will be conducted by the UI Prevention Research Center for Rural Health, the Iowa Public Health Association and the Iowa Immunizes Coalition.
The UI’s rural health center is one of 26 academic research centers nationwide the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention funded in an effort to reach underserved communities.
In the first phase, UI researchers will collect data to understand who is not getting vaccinated in 17 “micropolitan” cities — those with a population between 10,000 and 49,999. The cities include Fairfield in Jefferson County and Ottumwa in Wapello County.
Based on the preliminary research, Askelson said she anticipates a large percentage of those individuals aren’t opposed to the vaccine but that getting the shot “hasn’t reached the top of their to-do list.”
That may be a result of busy personal lives. That can be because of barriers to accessing the vaccine, including the lack of transportation or being unable to take time off work for an appointment.
“There’s a group of people who will get vaccinated if we could make it easier for them,” Askelson said.
Researchers also hope to identify the causes behind vaccine hesitancy, particularly for younger children. Federal officials are expected to approve the shot for younger children in the coming months
“The vaccine landscape is changing,” Askelson said. “So that will be different problems and different challenges and different messages and different interventions.”
Following the data collection, UI researchers will partner with public health officials, health care providers and other community leaders to create strategies and interventions to encourage residents to get the shot.
Those efforts could include setting up vaccine clinics outside busy stores or establishing vaccine navigators to help individuals find and get to appointments locally.
The goal is to build on initiatives already put in place by local public health officials and other community entities, Askelson said.
At the same time, Askelson said she hopes the project will help increase community trust in public health and prepare local entities to address future problems.
As of Thursday, about 1.3 million Iowans were fully vaccinated against the virus — 41.77 percent of the state’s total population and 49.24 percent of Iowans 12 and older.
With the demand for the COVID-19 vaccine significantly slowed, some public health experts are worried about the state’s ability to reach herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of the community is vaccinated against a virus.
While reaching that threshold is important for Iowa’s communities, Askelson said, meeting herd immunity is not the main goal of the UI project. Its focus is to break down barriers and take the vaccine effort one step at a time.
“Let’s get the next shot, let’s get the next person vaccinated,” Askelson said. “That’s one more person who’s not going to get COVID-19, that’s one more person that’s protecting their neighbors. Even if we would not get to herd immunity, every person that we’re going to get vaccinated is going to be really meaningful.”
•Carroll, Carroll County
•Storm Lake, Buena Vista County
•Boone, Boone County
•Spirit Lake, Dickinson County
•Spencer, Clay County
•Fort Dodge, Webster County
•Newton, Jasper County
•Marshalltown, Marshall County
•Oskaloosa, Mahaska County
•Pella, Marion County
•Burlington, Des Moines County
•Keokuk, Lee County
•Muscatine, Muscatine County
•Fairfield, Jefferson County
•Ottumwa, Wapello County
•Mason City, Cerro Gordo County
•Clinton, Clinton County
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