Health

Iowa panel will decide who gets vaccine after health care workers, nursing homes

The meetings won't be open to the public

Kelly Garcia, now the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, speaks at a March 22 news conference. Ga
Kelly Garcia, now the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, speaks at a March 22 news conference. Garcia on Wednesday said the panel is meeting privately to recommend which essential workers in Iowa will next get the COVID-19 vaccine. (Kelsey Kremer/Des Moines Register)

JOHNSTON — A state advisory council is finalizing its first recommendations on which Iowans get the COVID-19 vaccine first, but it has no deadline set for deciding who comes after nursing home residents and hospital workers and staff, the first people in line.

The Infectious Disease Advisory Council — which is meeting privately — has met twice and will meet again next week, Kelly Garcia, the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said at a Wednesday news conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds at PBS studios in Johnston.

The panel’s first recommendations — on subsets for health workers and nursing homes workers and staff — are to be published next week.

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No deadline has been set for the panel’s recommendations on which essential workers come after those groups, Reynolds and Garcia said.

The advisory panel members — comprised of medical, infectious disease and public health experts and officials — have been reaching out to employers, stakeholders and advocates for input, Garcia said.

“I am tremendously thankful to our (council) members, who are taking these conversations head on, speaking freely and bringing their expertise to the decision-making process. Because these decisions cannot be made lightly or easily,” Garcia said.

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“I’m confident that we have the right people at the table for this challenging effort.”

Private meetings

Garcia said those tough conversations and decisions — about which workers should be given access to the vaccine before others — are why the council has been meeting in private, away from reporters.

She said the council has produced minutes, a brief synopsis of each meeting, and the minutes will be made public.

Garcia said she and the council have attempted to strike a balance between creating a process in which council members can speak freely on sensitive topics while also being transparent with the public.

Garcia said her department is confident the panel’s private meetings do not violate the state’s open meetings and records laws, which require government entities to hold most meetings in public view, with some exceptions.

Gray area

The state Public Information Board, created to oversee compliance with state open meetings and records laws, on its website said, “Advisory groups and the application of the open meetings/records statutes are a murky area of the law.”

Margaret Johnson, the state board’s executive director, said as of Wednesday afternoon she had not seen documentation that supports the vaccine advisory council being exempted from state open meetings and records laws.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the vaccine advisory council may be able to avoid open meetings and records requirements if it was created by the public health department and not the governor or state lawmakers.

Public confidence

However, Evans said the Freedom of Information Council would recommend the vaccine advisory council holds its meetings in public so the public can feel confident in its work.

“The Freedom of Information Council believes there is no more important function in government right now than how government is going to distribute the vaccine across the state,” Evans said.

“And with the recommendations of the experts being kept from the public, I don’t know that that’s going to be a strategy that’s going to build public confidence in the decisions that are made.”

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On the contrary, he said, “I think it’s going to invite people to be skeptical and to distrust the decisions that are made.

“There’s no reason why these meetings of these experts could not be available to the public,” Evans added. “The people who are participating in these meetings, they’re sophisticated enough they know how to express themselves in a public setting.”

Comments: (563) 333-2659; erin.murphy@lee.net

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