CORONAVIRUS

What we know about Iowa's COVID vaccine plan: Who's eligible, can I sign up, where can I get it and more answers

Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen ready to be used as health care workers receive the first doses o
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are seen ready to be used as health care workers receive the first doses of the vaccine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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» Spanish translation: The Gazette translated a condensed version of this article into Spanish so people who prefer Spanish also have access to this important public health information. Read it here.

Updated Jan. 22, 2021

State public health officials say they will begin to vaccinate the next priority group of Iowans against the novel coronavirus by Feb. 1, shifting from front-line health care workers to other populations that face high risk for exposure to and severe illness from the virus.

On Jan. 21, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Iowans 65 and older will qualify for shots, shifting the state’s previous recommendation to align with federal guidelines.

In addition, other priority populations that fall under Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine distribution plan will be broken into five tiers, starting with first responders, Pre-K through Grade 12 school staff and child care workers.

Though Iowans have more clarity on what the next steps of COVID-19 vaccine rollout will look like, there are still many unanswered questions for those eager to get a vaccine. The Iowa Department of Public Health hasn’t clarified how and where Iowans can obtain their vaccine. It’s also unclear exactly how long it will take to administer to this large population based on the current vaccine supply.

Local county public health departments, which are tasked with coordinating distribution for its jurisdictions, have no details to share with residents. The limited vaccine supply has slowed the local effort to vaccinate first-priority groups, making the projected timeline difficult to determine.

Iowa’s vaccine effort, which started in mid-December, currently is focused on front-line health care workers, and staff and residents of long-term care facilities.

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“Vaccine supplies are arriving in our state and counties very slowly,” Heather Meador, Linn County Public Health clinical services supervisor, said this past week. “ Without an increase in vaccine supplies, we will not be able to offer all individuals identified in Phase 1A and 1B immunizations as quickly as anyone would like.”

Here’s what we do know so far:

Who qualifies for a vaccine under Phase 1B?

Here’s who qualifies for a vaccine, according to state public health officials:

Iowans 65 and older

People with disabilities living in home settings and their caregivers

Schoolteachers (Pre-K through grade 12), early childhood education workers and child care staff

First responders, including firefighters, police officers, and dependent adult-abuse and child welfare social workers

Correctional facility staff and incarcerated people in state and local facilities

Staff and residents in congregate living settings that include shelters, behavioral health treatment centers, sober living homes and detention centers. (College residence halls are not included.)

Food, agriculture, distribution and manufacturing workers in congregate settings that don’t allow for social distancing

Inspectors responsible for health, life and safety

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Government officials and staff engaged in state business at the Iowa Capitol during the legislative session.

Initially, state guidelines regarding older residents — which were limited to those 75 and older — differed from federal recommendations. It’s unclear from Reynolds’ announcement Jan. 21 why state officials changed guidelines.

How will these groups be prioritized?

Those 65 years and older can get a COVID-19 vaccine at any time starting Feb. 1. But other populations that qualify under Phase 1B will be broken into five tiers:

1. First responders (including police officers, firefighters and child welfare social workers), Pre-K through grade 12 staff, early childhood education and child care workers.

2. Food, distribution and manufacturing workers in congregate settings as well as individuals with disabilities in home settings and their caregivers.

3. Staff and residents of congregate settings and government officials.

4. Health, life and safety inspectors.

5. Correctional facility staff and inmates.

What about people with underlying medical conditions?

At this time, unless they fall under another Phase 1B population, Iowans younger than 65 with underlying medical conditions do not qualify for a vaccine.

Kelly Garcia, Iowa Department of Public Health interim director, told legislators this month that if the vaccine supply increases, the state “will quickly pivot” to other groups, including those of all ages with chronic health conditions.

However, given the restrictions on the state’s allocation of vaccines, it’s unclear how likely it is for those populations to be included in the rollout.

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If there is a vaccine shortage, vaccine recommendations from the state public health department say 50 percent of vaccine allocations would include “individuals of all ages with co-morbidities.” The remaining 50 percent would go to those most at risk for exposure or severe illness.

Is there a sign-up list for a vaccine?

At this time, no. State and local entities do not have a registry or list where Iowans can sign up for a vaccine as other states are doing.

Local public health officials indicated their offices, as well as local clinics and pharmacies, are being inundated with calls from Iowans wondering when they can expect to receive the vaccine.

Use this chart to find your age group then see if you or your loved ones qualify for the coronavirus vaccine in Iowa.

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Johnson County Public Health has had more calls in recent weeks than it has received throughout the pandemic, said Sam Jarvis, community health manager.

Linn County Public Health’s Meador said local doctor’s offices, pharmacies or public health offices can’t provide a specific date or timeline when individuals can expect to receive a vaccine. These entities have no information on when vaccine shipments will arrive or how many doses they’ll receive at a given time.

Where can I get a vaccine?

The state health department said it will release more information on this topic soon. It’s expected that doses will be available at the approximately 1,700 of doctor’s offices, clinics, retail pharmacies and other facilities across the state that have signed on to administer the vaccine.

About 100 health care providers in Linn County alone have signed on, according to local officials.

Essential workers may have their shots coordinated through their employers. Meador said county public health departments will match these workplaces with “a vaccine host” to coordinate administration of doses.

These employees may have to travel to the vaccine host’s location, or the host may give shots at the workplace.

How long will I have to wait until I get a vaccine?

State public health officials told state lawmakers this past week they plan to start administering vaccines for Phase 1B populations by Feb. 1 at the latest.

But the process will take some time, warned Ken Sharp, the IDPH official in charge of the COVID-19 vaccine effort.

“We need everyone to understand that not everybody’s going to get their vaccine by Feb. 2. They’re not even going to get their vaccine necessarily by the end of February,” Sharp said earlier this month.

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Reynolds also warned that the demand for shots will outweigh the state’s supply early in the process and asked the public for patience.

More than 660,000 Iowans will qualify under Phase 1B, according to state estimates.

Currently, the state receives roughly 19,500 vaccine doses per week. Iowa is sent fewer doses per capita than most states, and Reynolds said she is working with congressional leaders to learn why.

Linn County Public Health officials have said that based on the current supply of COVID-19 vaccines, it could take several months before everyone in Phase 1A and 1B is vaccinated.

“I wish I could give you a day or a week or a month when a vaccine will be available to you,” Meador said. “However, we don’t have that information.”

Johnson County Public Health also “has no indication of a date,” Jarvis said.

Officials have noted there are many factors involved with distributing a COVID-19 vaccine that complicate its administration. Unlike a flu clinic, each patient has to sit for 15 minutes after receiving a dose to watch for any adverse reactions.

And with the limited supply, there’s pressure not to waste any doses. Once a vial is opened, providers only have six hours to administer doses inside the vial before they have to be thrown out. Hospitals and other providers currently administering the vaccine try to be mindful when scheduling recipients.

When will I know I can go get a vaccine? Will I be notified?

The state public health department likely will make an announcement when populations under Phase 1B can begin to receive a vaccine.

State public health officials are partnering with the University of Iowa to spread the message statewide to those who qualify under the broader statewide order, and local officials are making efforts to raise awareness for its residents.

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Johnson County Public Health plans to use “any means necessary” to notify the public when vaccines are available to them, including social media, news releases and announcements relayed by community partners, Jarvis said.

Linn County Public Health also will make public announcements once more information is available. Linn County residents can sign up to receive COVID-19 updates through the county website’s Notify Me tool, at linncounty.org/list.aspx.

Will we see an increase in the vaccine supply?

Federal officials notified state governments earlier this month they plan to ramp up vaccine delivery to states by releasing doses held in reserve for second shots. Health officials nationwide anticipated their limited vaccine supply could dramatically increase in the near future.

However, the Washington Post reported this past week no federal reserve exists and officials instead are taking doses directly off the manufacturing line. Though some local officials are expecting an increased supply in the coming days, each state’s allocation will remain flat.

Individuals waiting for their second shot are expected to get them on schedule because states will continue to receive regular shipments, according to the Washington Post.

If I have allergies, should I be worried about the vaccine?

Those who have had allergic reactions to things such as food, latex, pollen and bee stings should still get the COVID-19 vaccine. Even those who have allergies to penicillin, antibiotics or types of medications are not at risk if they get a shot, said Dr. Pat Winokur, an infectious disease specialist and University of Iowa College of Medicine executive dean.

However, people who have had an anaphylactic reaction to any type of vaccine should not get this vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines for those who have experienced allergic reactions to injectable medications — namely polyethylene glycol, which is an ingredient in both COVID-19 vaccines. These individuals should not get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Should I get vaccinated if I’m immunocompromised?

Federal officials say people who have an impaired immune system, including those on immunosuppressant medication, can still receive the vaccine.

The vaccine is just as safe for people who are immunocompromised as it is for others, but the efficacy might be lower, Winokur said.

“But we do recommend they get vaccinated,” she said.

If I missed the second dose, does the vaccine still work?

Both COVID-19 vaccines available are a two-dose series, but what if someone misses that second shot?

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The first dose is somewhere between 50 percent to 80 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 illness, but it’s only after that second shot that it reaches 95 percent effectiveness rate.

People who only have one shot should still have some level of protection against severe infection, Winokur said. However, since researchers only studied patients who received both doses, it’s unclear how long one shot would be effective.

Winokur said its key anyone who missed their second dose seek it out as soon as possible. She believes individuals will still develop a strong immune response to the virus, even if the second shot is delayed.

Will the vaccine be effective against new COVID-19 variants?

Late last year, a mutation of novel coronavirus was discovered in other parts of the world, including the United Kingdom. While it’s common for viruses to mutate, experts have found the newest variant is more contagious that its predecessors.

So far, data scientists have suggested that the COVID-19 vaccine is effective against various mutations of the virus, Winokur said.

Where can I find more information on the vaccine itself?

If you have general questions about the vaccine, you can call 211, available 24 hours a day.

If you have specific questions, such as those that deal with your own health and risk, call your health care provider.

You also can find more information about the COVID-19 vaccine on the state’s website, idph.iowa.gov.

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

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