CORONAVIRUS

Iowa cancels another plan for helping make COVID-19 vaccine appointments

A deal with Microsoft is off, as is a plan to create a call center

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Feb. 4 addresses Iowans during a news conference at the Iowa PBS studios in Johnston, where she pro
Gov. Kim Reynolds on Feb. 4 addresses Iowans during a news conference at the Iowa PBS studios in Johnston, where she provided updates on the COVID-19 vaccination efforts. (Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register via AP)

JOHNSTON — Within days of abandoning a plan for a statewide call center to help residents set up coronavirus vaccine appointments, Iowa officials Wednesday said they also have canceled a deal with Microsoft to develop a centralized online system.

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced the decision just 10 days after she said Microsoft had been selected from a group of bidders to create the online registration and appointment system. At the time, she said the system would be ready in a few weeks.

“When we dug into what the options were and what was available and the timeline to get that done, it just didn’t make sense for us to move forward, especially with the registration and scheduling component because of all the different providers that are tied into that right now and the systems that they had,” she said.

Reynolds said the focus will shift to a different system, but offered no details at her news conference.

“We know that barriers still remain for Iowans who are currently eligible and we’re actively determining how we can leverage existing partnerships to provide an easier alternative to online scheduling,” the governor said.

Iowa currently is in Phase 1B of its rollout, focusing on people 65 and older and priority groups including first responders and schoolteachers.

The Microsoft project was part of the state’s solution to improve on a rocky vaccine rollout that has frustrated many and had the state initially lagging far behind the national average for the percentage of its population getting shots.

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As of Wednesday, Iowa was in 27th place among states in administering the vaccine, with about 11 percent of its residents having received one or more doses, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data showed.

The latest decision follows a move Friday when Reynolds’ administration informed bidders it would not award a contract for a vendor to operate a call center to help residents set up vaccine appointments.

The call center was to field inquiries about the vaccines, including helping screen residents for eligibility and setting them up with providers to make appointments.

Reynolds said the state is considering updates to allow appointments through its 211 help line, which links residents to human service programs, community services, disaster services and other programs.

Asked how elderly people should arrange vaccine appointments, Reynolds recommended they call their local Area Agency on Aging.

Reynolds has faced questions about why the state had not planned earlier for a system to allow for registration, appointments and calls.

Her only answer has been that state officials have been working on it.

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer criticized state officials for the delay Wednesday on Twitter.

“Why why why wasn’t this process started months ago? Literally, what could have been more important?” she asked. “How were they not thinking ahead, looking at systems, cracks etc. and doing more to anticipate need as most states have done?”

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Iowa’s inability to launch a system is in contrast to Nebraska, where state officials spent weeks planning a similar registration website and telephone hotline with their own Microsoft contract.

The site launched late last month, and state officials said they haven’t had any major problems. It logged 54,000 sign-ups on its first day, and nearly 200,000 Nebraska residents were enrolled as of Wednesday.

“It’s been remarkably smooth,” said Julie Naughton, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

More vaccine should be coming to Iowa, as Reynolds said the White House told governors Monday it would increase vaccine distribution to states by 2.5 million doses to 13.5 million. Iowa’s weekly allocation will increase next week 24 percent to nearly 62,000 doses.

Pharmacies will get an additional 1 million doses, which will boost vaccination capacity at Hy-Vee grocery stores and independent pharmacies participating in the national program, the governor said.

As COVID-19 testing is expected to continue becoming more widely available, the state public health department’s tracking of COVID-19 test data is shifting away from a focus on individual testing and instead onto a broad look at virus spread during the 14-day incubation period.

Starting this week, state public health officials will calculate Iowa’s positivity rate by dividing the number of positive tests over a two-week period with the total number of tests, both negative and positive, in that same time period.

This is the same method used by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to calculate percent positivity.

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Currently, 14-day positivity rates reported daily by the Iowa Department of Public Health are computed by taking individuals who tested for the virus and dividing that number with the total individuals who received a COVID-19 tests.

The change, which will be reflected on the state’s coronavirus tracking website by the end of the week, will likely result in a lower positivity rate overall for Iowa, Public Health Interim Director Kelly Garcia said Wednesday.

Michaela Ramm of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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