Iowa expects to start COVID-19 vaccinations for some essential workers, people with disabilities in early March
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday that workers in industries where they can't socially distance and some individuals with disabilities likely will become eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in early March.
Seventy percent of people within those populations are expected to receive at least one dose of the vaccine by the start of April, according to projections she shared at a news conference. That 70% milestone is among the factors the state is using to decide when it can begin vaccinating the next group of Iowans, Reynolds said.
"Now that vaccine supply is increasing, our administration rates are steady and allocations are provided weeks in advance, we're finally able to generally answer the question that so many Iowans are asking, and that's 'When is it my turn?'" Reynolds said. "We can now project when eligible populations could reach critical vaccination milestones."
Right now, Iowans 65 years old and older, teachers, child care workers and emergency responders are eligible to get the coveted COVID-19 vaccine. People who live and work in nursing homes and other health care workers were first to receive their shots.
Reynolds said that by next week, the state is projecting 70% of "tier one" populations will have received at least one dose of the vaccine. She said 70% of Iowans 65 and older are expected to receive the first dose of the vaccine by mid-March.
Who gets the vaccine next?
The progress with those groups allows the state to begin opening up vaccinations to other populations, including workers in food processing, agricultural production, distribution and manufacturing whose living or work conditions prevent them from social distancing.
Individuals with disabilities living in home settings who require care staff will also become eligible, along with their care staff.
In total, these tiers account for about 600,000 people, according to Iowa Department of Public Health Data.
Vaccinations will open up to remaining priority groups and Iowans 16 and older as supply increases, possibly beginning in April. Iowa Department of Public Health guidance names residents and staff at congregant settings, such as sober living homes but excluding college dormitories, and government officials and staff working at the Iowa Capitol as the next priority group. It totals about 13,000 Iowans.
Reynolds emphasized that the projections could change as circumstances fluctuate. She noted that recent severe weather across the country disrupted the delivery of millions of vaccine doses.
"They're not hard dates, and some areas of the state will be able to transition to their next eligible population more quickly than others," she said. "So, of course, timelines will vary county by county. Some will need additional time based on the size of their populations, and estimates could change for a variety of other reasons."
Frustrations remain with Iowa's 'fragmented' vaccine rollout
Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, said that although the state's projected timelines sound great, she remains skeptical that the Iowans who qualify will actually be able to access the vaccine.
“Everything has been so chaotic and poorly run and not centralized,” she said. “And people are falling through the cracks — especially people with disabilities.”
She said she is unsure which Iowans with disabilities will qualify under the state's current language.
"It could range from someone who has a professional provider coming in to care for them 24 hours a day in their home to someone who has a disability, is living at home and gets help from family members once a week to clean up the house," she said. "There needs to be clarity."
Once people know whether they qualify, Hudson said they will likely face other barriers. Many people with disabilities do not have access to the necessary technology to search out vaccine appointments, some do not have the cognitive skills or the social support to do so, and many more cannot or should not drive to pharmacies administering the vaccine, she said.
"I think the state and the providers should be going to where the people are just like they did with the nursing facilities," Hudson said. "Walgreens and CVS went to where the people were, and they should be going to the home settings and the group homes and the home- and community-based service places to deliver the vaccines."
As more vaccine becomes available, Reynolds said Iowans should have an easier time making vaccination appointments. Demand for the vaccine continues to outstrip supply, and the current patchwork system of obtaining vaccine doses has left many Iowans confused or frustrated.
A new website — www.vaccinate.iowa — will be available Friday to help streamline the process, Reynolds said. It will include a vaccine locator and answers to frequently asked questions. It won't allow Iowans to schedule vaccines directly, but it will connect them to provider systems where they can schedule those appointments.
Reynolds said last week her office canceled a contract for vaccine scheduling to avoid further disruption to the state's systems.
The state also hired vaccine navigators to reach out directly to seniors identified by area agencies on aging as having difficulty scheduling vaccines, and helping them through it. Starting March 8, those navigators will be available to seniors through the state's 211 hotline to help schedule appointments.
Last week, the AARP sent Reynolds a letter criticizing the "fragmented rollout" as "confusing and concerning" for seniors trying to be vaccinated. In a statement Thursday, AARP Iowa State Director Brad Anderson said the governor using 211 and Area Agencies on Aging was "an excellent place to start this effort."
“The announcement that the state is taking steps to simplify and centralize the vaccination process is a terrific step forward," Anderson said in a statement. "...While there will be challenges ahead, the decrease in outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes shows what can happen when we prioritize vulnerable populations and quickly get shots in arms."
Reynolds 'cautiously optimistic' for continued progress
So far, roughly 450,000 Iowans have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health. The vaccines available in Iowa each require two doses, taken weeks apart, to reach full efficacy. Up to 660,000 Iowans are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine under Reynolds' current eligibility criteria but those numbers will expand soon if the projections remain correct.
Reynolds said there are several reasons to be optimistic about the state's vaccine distribution trajectory.
She said the White House told governors during a weekly coronavirus briefing that the federal vaccine allocation to states will increase by another 1 million doses. And, beginning next week, the White House will be able to forecast state allocations several months in advance, which will help with state-level planning.
The FDA is also expected to approve a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson requiring only one dose, boosting vaccine supply across the country.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that the progress we're seeing now will only continue," Reynolds said. "And I do appreciate the partnership of the federal government in helping make this possible. The progress we've made over the last several weeks is pushing us toward a turning point in our COVID-19 recovery, and I'm committed to continuing this forward momentum in Iowa."
Iowa Public Health Association Executive Director Lina Tucker Reinders said the increased vaccine supply will be key. The infrastructure is in place for administering the shots, and she estimated local health departments could handle at least double their current capacities — assuming the federal government can supply sufficient doses.
"It's not a question of can we manage the vaccine; it's can we get the vaccine," Tucker Reinders said in an interview.
Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 515-284-8361.