DES MOINES — Iowa will withhold COVID-19 vaccine doses next week from five Iowa counties because they did not inoculate enough people, the head of the state’s pandemic response said Friday during an telephone town hall with AARP members.
Doses are being distributed based on population and a handful of counties have lagged below administering 80 percent of the doses they have received, said Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services and acting head of the Iowa Department of Public Health.
“We’re going to give them a little bit of a break to catch up. That is really a measure not to be punitive to those five counties,” Garcia said. “We know how hard everyone is working, but it really is to make sure that we’re then giving that chance to those counties that are moving through their vaccine allocation, that we’re getting it out to the Iowans who need it.”
She said the reduction won’t be “a forever withhold,” and the counties would get their full allocation back if they hit the 80 percent threshold.
In the meantime, doses that would have gone to the five counties next week “will be sent to other vaccine providers with capacity for higher administration rates,” a public health department spokesman said.
The spokesman would not name the five counties that are lagging, but state Sen. Liz Mathis, D-Hiawatha, tweeted the counties are: Washington, Chickasaw, Hancock, Poweshiek and Buchanan.
Separately, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration announced Friday it would not — at least for now — award a contract for a call center the governor had touted just Wednesday in a news conference as one of the ways the state would be helping residents set up vaccine appointments.
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In addressing frustrated seniors in the Iowa AARP town hall, Garcia told them to keep abiding by mitigation restrictions even if they’ve been vaccinated and to expect more vaccine supplies.
“I know how difficult this past year has been. It’s been scary. It’s been scary for everyone,” she said. “It’s been difficult to not be with our loved ones.”
Garcia heard concerns and frustrations from Iowans aged 65 and older who are eligible to get their initial COVID-19 vaccination but have experienced delays, computer website crashes or lack the resources to meet the scheduling needs of a system struggling to keep up with the demand for immunization shots.
“I’ve had a terrible time trying to schedule anything,” said a caller named Ruth, who had been thwarted in her efforts to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination appointment. “I feel like I’m kind of stuck.”
Likewise, a Waterloo woman said she called the state’s 211 call center but ended up talking with a responder based in Nebraska and was equally frustrated by attempts to find a Hy-Vee or other participating pharmacy that had the vaccine or knew where to get it.
Garcia said state officials are working with private companies to centralize and streamline the appointment process and hope to “stand up” a new online system.
At the same time, she said, she expects Iowa’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines will increase as well with a third product to be available in Iowa, perhaps in March.
“This has been incredibly difficult but we do have light at the end of the tunnel,” she told the AARP telephone meeting. “We are actively rolling out vaccines in this state. We know right now that our supply does not meet the tremendous demand that we have in this state, and we know that there has been frustration but the constraint here is supply. There’s just not enough vaccine for the incredible demand that we have. But we’re making progress. Our allocation is slowly increasing and every week we’re getting a little more.”
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Garcia said public health professionals stand ready to expand the vaccination effort as supply expands. But in the meantime, she urged Iowans to remain vigilant in their precautions aimed at slowing the viral spread as immunity builds — even though Reynolds last week dropped a partial mask mandate and relaxed social distancing rules.
The governor cited declining positivity and hospitalizations rates as the reasons for lifting the restrictions. However, local mask mandates remain in several communities including in Johnson and Linn counties.
“Our guidance from the department would not change. We still very much want everyone to be taking every mitigation effort possible — wear a mask, a tightfitting mask and in some cases two masks,” Garcia said, noting that new, more aggressive coronavirus variants have been detected in Iowa including in Johnson County.
“Social distance — keep your 6-feet distance, wash your hands regularly — that’s simple but highly effective. Stay home if you are ill,” Garcia added, and also advised the use of testing and antibody treatments.
“We need everybody — even those who have been vaccinated — to continue to take these mitigation strategies,” she said.
Currently, Iowa’s vaccine effort is focused on Iowans aged 65 or older and front-line essential workers like teachers, first responders and individuals who live and work in congregate settings or other high-risk positions. Garcia said that likely will eventually expand to Iowans under age 65 with underlying health issues and to the general adult population once distribution becomes widespread and is able to keep pace with demand — possibly by late April or early May, according to the latest federal projections.
“I wish I had my crystal ball finely tuned here,” Garcia said. “It’s not a distribution problem, it’s not that we don’t have enough people to administer the vaccine. Our problem is that we don’t have enough supply. We stand ready to get these shots in arms.”
Iowa AARP leader Brad Anderson said Iowans over the age of 65 can call the Area Agency on Aging for assistance at (866) 468-7887.
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The Associated Press contributed.
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