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Slower Than Anticipated COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Has Some Leaders Concerned

Arbor Springs
An employee of Arbor Springs nursing home in West Des Moines gets a COVID-19 shot on Dec. 28.

Weeks after Iowa received its first shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine, the state is still in the process of vaccinating health care workers and nursing homes, and some leaders say they feel vaccination efforts are moving slower than expected.

According to the CDC, Iowa has received 191,675 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines so far with 74,224 of those doses — or 39 percent — actually making it into the arms of Iowans.

This puts Iowa above the national average, where 28 percent of distributed vaccines so far have been used, and means approximately 2.4 percent of Iowa's population has been vaccinated so far.

Brent Willett, the president and CEO of the Iowa Health Care Association, said so far roll out is going "good, not great."

Willett, whose organization represents many of the state's nursing homes, said some of Iowa's more than 700 nursing homes and assisted living facilities are still without vaccination appointments with CVS or Walgreens, who have contracted with the federal government to vaccinate nursing homes.

"This is moving not as quickly as we would like," he said. "But we also understand that it's very logistically challenging. So we're just working to try to get this moving as quickly as possible.”

Willett said one reason is the pharmacy chains have been unable to contact some long-term care facilities because of incorrect contact information on file. He said his organization has been assisting the pharmacies in contacting these nursing homes.

Willett said the current plan is to have all nursing homes and assisted living facilities receive their first doses by Jan. 25, a few days behind the initial plan.

“We still have a number of facilities that are without a clinic date. And we know that the pharmacies are working hard on that. We've been in touch with them just in the last 24 hours," he said. "But that's what we need to see happen next.”

Willett isn't the only one who has expressed concerns with the number of Iowans who have been vaccinated so far.

On Thursday during a press call with reporters, Gov. Kim Reynolds said the pharmacy partnership is taking longer to vaccinate nursing homes than anticipated.

"I'm not happy with it either. To be quite honest, I don't think the allocation is anywhere where it needs to be," she said.

Reynolds, along with other governors across the country, participated in a phone call with federal officials and the CEOs of Walgreens and CVS on Friday to express their concerns.

According to a statement from Reynolds' spokesperson, Pat Garrett, state leaders "were promised better responsiveness, transparency, and efficiency going forward but Iowa will monitor progress and continue to follow up if improvement is not seen."

Walgreens has declined to say how many of Iowa's nursing homes its workers have vaccinated so far.

Instead, it released a statement earlier this week saying it's "working closely with state governments to expand vaccine administration as they finalize their prioritization and distribution plans for additional vulnerable populations."

CVS, which is scheduled to vaccinate 486 of the state's facilities, reported on Friday that it has vaccinated 122 facilities so far with another 125 scheduled over the next seven days.

CVS President and CEO Larry J. Merlo said in a statement released Wednesday that the chain "remains on schedule."

“Our work with long-term care facilities isn’t a mass vaccination effort – quite the opposite,” Merlo said. “We’re dealing with a vulnerable population that requires onsite and, in some cases, in-room visits at facilities with fewer than 100 residents on average."

State health officials said on Tuesday they were planning to issue a "more detailed vaccine progress update" this week, but as of Friday afternoon, IPR has not received the update.

The delay in vaccinations along with a reduction in the initial amount of vaccine doses allocated to Iowa means it's unclear how long it will take the state to get through the vaccination "phase 1a," which includes health care workers and long-term care staff and residents.

Officials also have yet to release what groups will be included in the next phase of the vaccine rollout, known as "phase 1b."

Under CDC guidance, this group includes frontline essential workers like teachers and food plant employees, and those 75 and older, though which groups will be included in Iowa's phase is up to state officials.

On Thursday, Reynolds told reporters she anticipates receiving phase 1b recommendations from the state's infectious disease advisory council, a group of health experts tasked with making vaccine recommendations, next Monday.