CORONAVIRUS

Iowans vent frustrations, anxiety on slow-moving vaccine rollout

Local pharmacies, clinics dealing with influx of calls

Certified medical assistant Sillina Davis (left) gives the first of two rounds of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Traci
Certified medical assistant Sillina Davis (left) gives the first of two rounds of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to Traci Freeberg, a front office worker at OB-GYN Associates, at the Eastern Iowa Health Center in Cedar Rapids on Jan. 15. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Since two vaccines against the novel coronavirus received federal approval for use, federal and state officials have been scrambling this past month to disperse the shots as quickly as possible.

But vaccine distribution has been slower-than-expected so far, leading to heightened anxiety and frustration among those eager to get their shot.

Some residents say they are even beginning to lack faith that vaccine rollout in Iowa will be effective against the ongoing pandemic.

“I don’t trust that (Gov. Kim Reynolds) is going to get the job done,” said Nancy Conybeare, 72, of Solon.

Earlier this week, Reynolds released more details on the next steps of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, Phase 1B. Populations under that phase — such as first responders, school staff, manufacturing and distribution workers and other at-risk groups — will be prioritized under five tiers.

She also opened the door to those aged 65 and older to receive a shot, backing away from a previous recommendation from state officials that the COVID-19 vaccine be offered to those aged 75 and older.

However, many still have unanswered questions. Officials said Phase 1B is set to begin Feb. 1, but some residents wonder when they can expect to get a vaccine and where they can go for the shot.

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They’re seeking details on how to sign up for a vaccine, eager to put their name on a list to ensure they receive a vaccination as soon as possible.

As a result, local public health departments say their offices are being flooded with the highest call volume since the pandemic began. State officials are urging residents not to call clinics or pharmacies because they don’t have any details to share at this time.

“We’re getting 50 to 60 calls a day from people who want the vaccine and heard they can get it,” said Matt Osterhaus, pharmacist and owner of Osterhaus Pharmacy in Maquoketa.

State and local public health officials have warned that, based on the current supply of vaccines, it likely will take some time before everyone who qualifies receives a shot. State estimates put the total number of individuals who qualify under Phase 1B at about 660,000.

The state receives roughly 19,500 doses per week from federal officials, which are fewer doses per capita than other states. Reynolds is working with the state’s congressional leaders to determine why that is, she said during her news conference earlier this week.

Looking to other states, it’s apparent Iowa is behind other states when it comes to vaccine rollout. Conybeare said her 69-year-old sister in New York has an appointment for her shot scheduled in April and her 67-year-old sister in Chicago recently received word she could sign up for a shot.

“I don’t understand why these densely populated areas get a better share of vaccines than Iowa,” Conybeare said.

She’d be happy to wait once she had her name on a list to receive a shot, but Conybeare said she’s frustrated with the process because she doesn’t have an estimate of how many more months until she gets a vaccine.

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“I’m waiting way longer than I would have wanted it to be until I see my grandchildren,” she said. “I’m frustrated and I don’t see why we have to be here compared to other states.”

A North Liberty couple benefited from another state’s rollout when they drove to Florida earlier this month and received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

‘Huge relief’

Karin Bowers, 65, and her husband, Michael, were disappointed when state officials initially announced vaccines in Iowa would be available only to those aged 75 and older.

So Bowers said she did some research on Florida, where they have spent their winters since their retirement. State officials there had made the vaccine available to anyone aged 65 and older, residents and nonresidents alike.

“I understand everyone wants it, but I think Iowa needs to pick it up a bit,” Bowers said.

They were planning to be in Florida anyway, Bowers said. After driving 21 hours, the pair went to a drive-through vaccination site one morning and received their shot. They waited in line for about two and a half hours.

“There were lots of other cars from other states,” she said. “We saw Wisconsin, New York, Texas, Tennessee.”

Florida since has put an end to “vaccine tourism” this week, now requiring anyone receiving a COVID-19 vaccine to show proof they are a resident of the state. A Florida Department of Health spokesperson said nonresidents who did receive the first dose will be able to receive their second dose, according to a Miami Herald report.

Getting the vaccine has been “a huge relief” for the North Liberty couple.

“We went months without seeing children and grandchildren, and that’s hard,” Bowers said. ”We missed holidays and all that time together, so it’s a big relief to get that shot.”

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Osterhaus Pharmacy in Maquoketa is one of three community-based pharmacists that has partnered with the local public health agency to administer vaccines to frontline health care workers in Jackson County.

From their perspective, the process to receive vaccine doses has been a smooth one. So far, they’ve received two shipments containing 300 doses each and successfully administered all shots within the first shipment.

In addition to the logistical hurdles, Osterhaus said one of the main challenges is dealing with inaccurate information from individuals eager to get the vaccine.

Oftentimes, residents see national reports and news from other states and assume they can come to the pharmacy to get a shot. It falls on his staff to inform them otherwise.

“I think we’re in a time that is unlike anything else,” he said. “Last time we had a pandemic, we didn’t have social media, we didn’t have the same media exposure.

“It’s hard to make sure the right message gets across to people.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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