Iowa canceled plans for a centralized COVID-19 vaccine appointment system. How are Iowa's neighbors handling their vaccine rollout?

Nick Coltrain
Des Moines Register

Iowa is relying on a patchwork of services, health care and public health departments to get COVID-19 vaccinations into residents' arms.

But that's not a unique approach to the challenge of getting huge populations vaccinated quickly during the coronavirus pandemic.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds announced on Feb. 17 that she would cancel a planned Microsoft contract to create a new, comprehensive system for vaccination appointments. She opted instead to strengthen and tie together existing systems and public health departments.

"We did not want to slow down the progress that we're making," Reynolds said.

She encouraged seniors to call 211 or work with their Area Agencies on Aging to help them coordinate vaccine access. Vaccinations for Iowans, like health care workers, have been coordinated through their workplaces; others, like school staff, have gone to pop-up vaccination clinics. County health agencies, like Polk County's, may also offer vaccine clinics for those who are eligible. 

In Polk County, qualified residents can register for an appointment via the county, at, or a partner pharmacy, such as Hy-Vee or Medicap. The registration process will lay out the next steps, including documentation one should bring, for being vaccinated. 

More:When, where can I get a COVID-19 vaccine in Iowa? And other coronavirus questions answered

Illinois' approach included some Iowans

Illinois, like Iowa, is taking a localized, patchwork approach. The Illinois public health website directs vaccine-eligible people to a locator map to find appointments. It features more than 800 sites for the more than 12.5 million state residents.

Illinois is also vaccinating some Iowans, Rock Island County public health Administrator Nita Ludwig said in an interview. The county's vaccine clinics has seen a number of Iowans cross the Mississippi River for shots. Illinois opened its eligibility requirements before Iowa and Rock Island County seemed to have vaccine doses than Scott County, Iowa — though eligibility is still limited and neither county has enough vaccine for everyone eligible. 

More:With fewer Iowans hospitalized for COVID-19, one hospital closes COVID-19 ward, others making adjustments

"It's kind of a double-edged sword because it is a federal asset, so if people meet our eligibility criteria, we are vaccinating them, no matter where they live," Ludwig said. "But our vaccine allocation is based on population, so we don't want to open it up to the whole state of Iowa."

Ludwig said her health department and Illinois guidance have been adjusting to best meet the moment.

The county's first clinic after expanded eligibility beyond front-line health care workers and nursing home residents "was a bit of a circus" as they opened it up on a first-come, first-serve basis, she said. But, Ludwig estimated 90% of those shots went to people 65 or older.

Illinois will soon start distributing vaccines directly to health care systems, she said. That will allow physicians will be able to soon directly reach out to their patients, rather than making people eligible for the vaccine scramble for their shots.

"I think we're all comparing apples and oranges. No one has really done this before, so no one really knows what the best way is," Ludwig said. "... Four or five years from now, we'll say this is the way we should have done it, right? But you don't know that while you're doing it. You're just trying to get it done the most efficient way you can."

More:Iowa's race, ethnicity data on COVID-19 and vaccines shows huge gaps, leading to blind spots in equitable response

Wisconsin plans a central website for vaccines, on March 1

In Wisconsin, there is no central vaccine registry. The state's public health website promises to connect people with available vaccines — when it goes live March 1. Meanwhile, it links users to county-level public health websites. Nonetheless, Wisconsin is No. 8 in the nation in terms of percent of the population receiving at least one dose of vaccine, according to the New York Times.

South Dakota's health systems allow central registration

South Dakota, after being ravaged by the virus and suffering the eighth-worse per-capita death toll in the country, is No. 7 in percent of its population that has received a vaccine.

The state's health care systems feature vaccine registration and, in the case of western South Dakota, a health care monopoly has led to de facto centralization of vaccine distribution, Monument Health Dr. Shankar Kurra told NPR. That centralization has helped providers do direct outreach to patients that are eligible.

Nebraska, Missouri promise to notify with instructions when people are eligible

Nebraska and Missouri each feature centralized, state-run vaccine registration portals that feature phone numbers for people uncomfortable or unable to navigate the websites, and advertise sending users notifications for when they're eligible and instructions for when they become eligible.

Minnesota has a 'Vaccine Connector'

Minnesota recently launched "Vaccine Connector," a centralized portal for information.

After registration, when a person becomes eligible to get vaccinated, the tool will alert them, connect them to resources to schedule an appointment and notify them if there are vaccination opportunities in their area. The system will not make appointments for people.

AARP Iowa wants centralized system

AARP Iowa, the state chapter of the national advocacy group for older Americans, urges Iowa to adopt a centralized appointment system accessible to Iowans with or without a computer.

"We must have a system that takes the burden of navigating the maze of vaccine distribution off individuals," AARP Iowa State Director Brad Anderson said in a statement to the Des Moines Register on Friday. "Additionally, we need to protect all Iowans from scammers which makes a known and trusted entity, such as the Iowa Department of Public Health, an ideal place to host a centralized system."

He sent a letter to Reynolds on Thursday, the day after she announced the cancellation of the Microsoft contract to build a centralized system, to tell her about the concerns and fears the group is hearing from their constituents. AARP Iowa represents about 360,000 Iowans, or more than 10% of the state, Anderson said.

St. Cloud Times reporting contributed. Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at or at 515-284-8361.