Counties express frustration with 8-minute warning on expanded vaccine eligibility

Published: Mar. 5, 2021 at 4:58 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - During a weekly webinar Friday, multiple county officials shared their frustration with the Iowa Department of Public Health at being given little-to-no warning about the changes announced on Thursday, which open up vaccine eligibility to people 64 and younger with a medical condition that the CDC identified as possibly causing severe illness from COVID-19.

An email KCRG-TV9′s i9 Investigative Unit received shows the Iowa Department of Public Health only alerted county health departments it was expanding eligibility criteria for COVID-19 vaccinations 8-minutes before the announcement was made.

During the webinar, the state health department said it expects the recently announced change will add about 1 million people who are eligible to receive a vaccine. The department will not issue prioritization to people with certain illnesses, though individual counties may do so. The state also plans to rely on people attesting to their medical condition or smoking history truthfully. It will also vaccinate this new group while simultaneously vaccinating the tiers set up in January.

The department said it made the decision after nearly 12 counties said it had completed vaccinating their population of people 65 years and older.

Kelly Garcia, who is the interim director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said the move was made to ensure open appointments were filled.

“I know not every county is going to be in the same space and the move to open things up really is around the idea that a not insignificant number of both pharmacy partners and local public health agencies had open appointments,” she said. “And it has been our goal, our collective goal from the very beginning to fill as many appointments and get shots in arms as quickly as possible.”

The new guidelines go into effect Monday, March 8. Each county has the flexibility on beginning vaccinations for people under age 65 with a medical condition.

The department also indicated they were looking at state-managed vaccination clinics and do not expect any changes to be made to the Governor’s next emergency proclamation.

It also said the Infectious Disease Advisory Council, which is advising Iowa on which populations to vaccinate has no plans to meet again in the future.

Communication Issues

Christy Roby Williams, who is the public health director for Muscatine County, said an earlier warning would give her more time to prepare her department.

“I would respectfully request that the Iowa Government consider communicating with state and local public health departments when phases are going to change (prior to the change),” she said in the chat feature on the call. “So we can better prepare our communications, call centers, employees and provide a rapid response to community.”

Many others on the call agreed with this sentiment, including Becky Wolf. Wolf is the top health official in Greene County.

“Providing 10 minutes advance notice before releasing to press creates HUGE issues locally especially going into Friday! We deserve better. We appreciate all you do for us in these impossible times.”

Tim Richmond, who is the Wapello County Emergency Management Coordinator in Wapello County, said this has been a repeated complaint from local health agencies.

“Locals should get advance notice of significant changes so we can manage local messaging, he said. ”Not doing so pits locals against stat partners unnecessarily. I don’t think this is done on purpose, but has been a repeated complaint throughout this entire pandemic.”

Ken Sharp, who is the chair of the Infectious Disease Advisory Council. acknowledged the local public health departments have had little warnings on changes.

“We hear you and we’ve heard you every time,” he said. “And we recognize that everything is so compressed and it just continues to be that way. We are doing everything we can to try and give as much notice. And we recognize that we just haven’t been able to get into a place where several days notice is just not something we’ve been able to do.”

After Sharp responded, two different public health officials said they just wanted a warning greater than ten minutes.

Richmond is the Coordinator for Wapello Emergency Management.
Richmond is the Coordinator for Wapello Emergency Management.(None)

Redistributing vaccine doses to counties not finished with vaccinating people 65 and older

During the transition from Phase 1A to 1B, IDPH required everyone in a phase across the entire state of Iowa to receive a vaccine before any county could begin vaccinating people in the next group. This is no longer the case and multiple county health departments asked the state about redistributing vaccine doses to counties that haven’t finished vaccinating people older than 65.

Ken Sharp said around 12 counties said it had completed vaccinating people 65-years-old or older. Dana Cockrell, who is the assistant administrator for the Monroe County Health Department, asked why those counties can’t have their doses placed on hold.

“If the minority of counties has met their need, can their shipments not be put on hold?,” she asked in the chat. “We were just getting planning off of the ground to allocate to agricultural sectors that qualify and now the vaccine eligible crowd has grown exponentially. Give us their vaccines so that we can vaccinate the folks that qualify. Don’t saturate the field more.”

Cockrell said the state is putting the local health department in a position to fail.

“You are squashing our chances to make headway and succeed,” she wrote in the chat. “We went from successful plans forming to behind the 8 ball, once again.”

Sharp said it will not wait on every county in the state to be done with a phase before expanding eligibility.

“We’re trying to find a balance between a number of counties who have been able to get through their waiting list,” he said. “And these are not just little, tiny counties, this is a broad range of counties including some we would consider large counties by Iowa standards. So we are trying to do our best to find that balance to allow counties to continue to progress through their populations.

Sharp also said it’s trying to uphold promises made in the past that it would not reduce allocation so counties could properly plan appointments. Sharp said that was a criticism IDPH received from county public health when it reallocated doses to other counties to catch up while transiting from Phase 1A to 1B.

Charity Loecke, who is the coordinator for Delaware County Public Health, said the state should increase its allocation if the eligibility is going to increase.

“I ask that if you extend eligibility then our vaccine allocation needs to increase!!,” she wrote in the chat. “This feels to us that there needs to be vaccine reallocated to other counties.”

Sharp responded that it’s looking at allocation strategies and are working to increase allocations to counties, but it will take time because of the slow rollout of the vaccine.

Other people on the call also told the state it needed more doses of the vaccine and have the capacity to handle more doses.

On chat with weekly call
On chat with weekly call(None)

IDPH actively looking into Mass Vaccination Testing

Kelly Garcia, who is the interim director for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said on the call the state is looking into hosting mass vaccination clinics as supply increases.

Helen Eddy, who is the Director of the Polk County Health Department, asked if the state was considering state-managed mass vaccination clinics specifically at the Test Iowa site.

Garcia responded it is and is looking to partner with counties as well.

Mass Vaccination Question
Mass Vaccination Question(None)

“We are thinking about hosting some of those from the stateside,” she said. “We would love to partner with counties or group of counties who would like to hold one together.”

Johnson County wants to break down those with pre-existing conditions into smaller age groups

Two different counties wanted IDPH to break down those newly eligible for a vaccine into smaller age groups.

Sam Jarvis, who is a division manager with the Johnson County Public Health Department, requested that that age bands of ten years be in place for the additional expansion ineligibility.

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