Iowa cancels Microsoft contract for new vaccine scheduling. Gov. Kim Reynolds says it would disrupt current systems.
Iowa has dropped plans for a centralized registration system to help frustrated seniors and other Iowans find appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday the state has cancelled a contract with Microsoft to build a new statewide system for shots. State officials decided trying to implement such a system could cause more disruption, the governor said at her weekly news conference.
Reynolds said it would be too difficult to combine the many scheduling systems now being used by health departments and pharmacies across the state. Instead, state officials will try to help make existing systems work more smoothly.
"We did not want to slow down the progress that we're making," Reynolds said.
The move comes amid a crush of demand from hundreds of thousands of seniors, teachers and other eligible Iowans for a relatively small supply of COVID-19 shots from the federal government.
Robin Martin of Pella is one of those seniors. She said in an interview Wednesday that she and her adult son spent several hours a day for a week-and-a-half searching websites for a vaccination appointment for her. They finally found one last week at a Hy-Vee Pharmacy, but Martin said the process should have been less chaotic.
"It's almost impossible," said Martin, 77. The retired college librarian said she's luckier than many other older Iowans, who lack computer skills or someone to do the tedious task for them. Now that she's gotten her first shot, she's helping several others search for appointments.
Martin said she knows the main problem is a severe shortage of vaccine. But she thinks many people would feel better if they could make an appointment, even if it's several weeks away.
"It seems crazy to me," she said of the lack of a centralized registration system. "I'm sure it's complicated, but for six months we could have been working on this as a state."
Kelly Garcia, interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said after Wednesday's news conference that her staff has been working for months to seek a way for Iowans to register for vaccination appointments. She said they know of no other state that has successfully set up a centralized vaccination registration process.
Iowans have been receiving vaccine doses since mid-December, and Reynolds greatly expanded vaccine eligibility on Feb. 1.
The state announced Feb. 9 that Microsoft would be awarded an emergency contract to build out the vaccine scheduling system, days after Reynolds issued a formal request for proposals.
Last week, the state canceled a related request for a private contractor to set up a centralized call center for vaccination appointments.
Reynolds said Wednesday the state is working to add vaccine scheduling capability to its existing 211 phone system, which helps Iowans find social services. In the meantime, she said, 211 phone staffers and Area Agencies on Aging can advise seniors on how to find a vaccine appointment.
AARP, which represents older Iowans, said later Wednesday the current call-in options are insufficient. State leaders need to better coordinate resources to help people navigate the vaccination process, AARP spokeswoman Julie Betts wrote in an email to the Des Moines Register.
"Voicemails continue to pile up in far too many parts of the state, leaving Iowans frustrated and waiting, especially Iowans without computer access," Betts wrote. "... Iowa needs to implement a sensible statewide COVID Vaccination Plan that includes a centralized, user-friendly, vaccination appointment registration system accessible via a single web site and coordinated by a phone registration system answered by live, trained staff."
The Iowa Department of Public Health website has a page that is supposed to help Iowans find vaccination providers whom they could call or go online with. But as of Wednesday afternoon, that web page had blank spaces for 19 of Iowa's 99 counties. Earlier this month, the website showed no vaccination providers in eight rural counties. At that time, public health departments in all eight counties said they or local clinics or pharmacies had been providing some shots, and they didn't know why the state appeared to be reporting otherwise.
Sarah Ekstrand, a spokesperson for the Iowa Department of Public Health, said later Wednesday that some vaccination providers do not want to be listed on the state directory, especially if they don’t currently have vaccine. “Our team is working to ensure that there is at least one provider listed per county, and to maintain the information accurately on an ongoing basis,” she wrote in an email to the Register.
By Thursday morning, the state website showed just four counties with no vaccination providers.
During her news conference, the governor pointed out several encouraging signs about the pandemic. She noted COVID-19 hospitalizations have dropped 85% in Iowa since a November spike, and deadly outbreaks in long-term care facilities continue to plummet as their residents and staff complete vaccinations.
Reynolds said the Biden administration vowed this week to continue substantially increasing vaccine supplies, including by 2.5 million doses next week. Iowa's allocation of first-round doses is to climb about 24% next week to nearly 62,000, she said, which doesn't include other shots being sent directly from the federal government to pharmacies.
Iowa has also climbed the national ranks in how much of its vaccine has been administered, Reynold said. It is now No. 22 in the nation, she said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked it as No. 46 earlier this month.
On Wednesday afternoon, Iowa was reporting that 381,691 people here had received at least one of the two vaccinations required for full protection. That reflected about 12% of the state's population.
"There is light at the end of the tunnel, and we're going to move through it," Reynolds said.
Last week, Iowa implemented a rule that required counties to use up at least 80% of their vaccine on hand before getting another weekly allocation. Five counties were informed last week that they hadn't reached the threshold, which led to controversy and confusion. Reynolds said Wednesday the issue was smoothed over, with no counties having to cancel vaccinations. She said all 99 counties were meeting the 80% threshold this week, and she said she was optimistic they would continue to do so.
Meanwhile, state officials announced Wednesday that they are retooling how they report Iowa's positivity rate for coronavirus testing, which should cause the rate to fall even further than it already has.
Previously, the Iowa Department of Public Health only reported the number of individuals tested, without regard to the number of tests an individual may have had. Starting later this week, the department will start reporting total tests, driving up the difference between the number of tests taken and the number of positive cases.
While this will decrease the reported positivity rate in the state — one of the metrics used to assess the severity of the pandemic — State Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati told reporters the change shouldn’t affect the state’s overall view of the situation.
“As you move across time, it's no longer as helpful for the general public to know what happened last year as it is to know what's going on in the past one to two weeks, with two weeks being the incubation period for the virus,” Pedati told reporters before Reynolds’ televised news conference.
The state previously reported number of individuals tested and recorded other demographic data. That led to “a fairly significant backlog” in reporting as staff tried to fill in the blanks on demographic data during the testing, Iowa Department of Public Health interim Director Kelly Garcia said. It was also compounded by the work required to de-duplicate individuals who have been tested multiple times.
Garcia said the state initially planned to recommend that change to Reynolds in the fall, but the November spike in coronavirus cases across took priority.
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Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8449.
Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 515-284-8361.