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State Officials Say Vaccine Age Eligibility Expansion Was Necessary To Fill Appointments

Gov. Kim Reynolds said Iowans will need to be patient when waiting for the COVID-19 vaccination, as supplies are very low.
Natalie Krebs
IPR File
Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday that Iowans are welcome to seek out vaccine appointments in other counties.

State officials expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to include Iowans under 65 with underlying conditions on Monday, saying the move was needed to fill appointment slots.

State officials said Iowa has expanded its COVID-19 vaccine age eligibility to include those under 65 with underlying conditions because some counties were reporting struggling to fill appointment slots.

Ken Sharp, an administrator with the Iowa Department of Public Health, told the state Board of Health on Wednesday that the state made the decision last week because some counties were reporting running into a "virtual cliff" and were unable to fill all appointment slots with the state's eligibility requirements.

"We wanted to make sure that those counties could continue to work through their populations and felt it was important at that time to open up that 64 and younger population with pre-existing conditions," he said.

Sharp acknowledged that this will add "some stressors" for local public health departments that are still working on vaccinating their older populations, but said he doesn't expect that to last.

"I think based on the allocation numbers that we are seeing, and the increases we're being promised, I hope that within four to six weeks, we start to see a shift in that supply versus demand challenge that we've been struggling [with]," he said.

At a news conference Wednesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked why she has not opened eligibility to everyone given the fact Iowans don't have to provide proof of their qualifying medical condition.

“I think we have a good process in place," Reynolds said. "And as we see those numbers continue to increase, and we continue to open up and vaccinate more and more Iowans, we’ll take the next step.”

She also said it is appropriate for Iowans to seek vaccinations in other counties if they can't get an appointment in their home county.

Reynolds said more than 93 percent of Iowans aged 65 and up have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Seniors who haven't gotten vaccinated can now call 211 to get help.

And Reynolds said while it's not clear exactly when the state will get more shipments of one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines, the White House is projecting weekly allocations of the other vaccines will increase in the coming weeks.

The state has improved its ranking compared to other states of getting first and second doses into Iowans' arms.

On Tuesday, health officials with Polk County, the state's most populous county, said they wouldn't expand age eligibility until at least 70 percent of the current eligible population has been vaccinated. This includes K-12 school employees, child care workers and first responders in Phase 1B, Tier 1, a group that, along with the senior population, includes over 100,000 residents.

"We understand the importance of vaccinating individuals with chronic health conditions and are eager to do so. But we also understand the reality that there is not enough vaccine to reach everyone in this group at this time," said Helen Eddy, the director of the Polk County Public Health Department, on Tuesday.

"Because of this, we want to continue to work through our current tier in an orderly manner and open up to new groups at a pace that matches our vaccine supply.”

Eddy said as of Monday, about 69 percent of residents 65 and older have received their first dose of the vaccine, with about 49 percent having completing the series.

She said the number of the residents under 65 with an underlying health condition is estimated to be more than 150,000, which would more than double the number of eligible residents, while the county continues to receive around 6,000 prime doses a week.

But other large counties in the state are taking a different approach.

Linn County health officials announced this week that they will be expanding age eligibility starting next Sunday.

In a statement, they said 80 percent of the county's vaccine allocation will go to those 65 and older, those under 65 with underlying health conditions and individuals with disabilities and their caregivers. The remaining 20 percent will go to essentials workers in vaccine phases 1A and 1B.

But Linn County officials warned demand will still far outstrip supply, as the county expects to receive just 3,540 prime doses a week through March.

"Vaccine continues to be in short supply. Not everyone who is eligible for a vaccine will be able to schedule an appointment at this time," the statement said.

On Tuesday, Eddy said Polk County residents are welcome to seek out the vaccine in other counties who have expanded age eligibility.

“We know that that occurs. There's no residency requirement. And so, you know, we see people going where they can get vaccinated, and that's fine," she said.

Note: This story was corrected to remove Gov. Reynolds' quote that Iowa was on track to vaccinate the one millionth Iowan this week. Iowa was on track to administer the one millionth dose of COVID-19 vaccine this week, representing more than 690,000 Iowans who received at least one dose as of Friday afternoon.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter
Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter