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School districts and the vaccine: Some confirm on-site clinics, others can't find partners as rollout continues

State and local public health leaders have left it up to individual districts to coordinate on-site vaccination clinics for teachers and staff.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Some are getting the COVID vaccine after letting students out early for the day. Others are setting alarms to frantically book an online vaccination appointment. 

And some are floating the idea of driving hours to another county to get the shot.

All Iowa PK-12 teachers and school staff are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine beginning this week, but many are voicing frustration about the lack of organization and uniformity in getting the vaccine.

Polk County, for example, is home to more than a dozen school districts, each with different needs and vaccination plans.

Dowling Catholic worked for months on a vaccination plan, according to spokesperson Tara Nelson. On Feb. 1, the district got word their staff would be getting an allocation of vaccines on Friday, Feb. 5. 

UnityPoint Occupational Health will be administering the vaccines to teachers and staff at Dowling who want the shot. 

The news of the private school getting an on-site vaccination clinic from UnityPoint raised questions about the process of districts getting doses for their staff.

In a Polk County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, public health director Helen Eddy addressed the issue.

"Their decision to allocate those vaccines and how they use those vaccines is their decision," Eddy said. "We do not have any oversight over that, other than to say, 'Are you vaccinating people appropriately in that tier? Are those people qualified in the tier?'"

Eddy said the Polk County Health Department contacted school district leaders last week to inform them about their options to set up on-site clinics.

"Here at Polk County Health, at this time, we do not have the capacity to go on-site to provide strike teams to schools," Eddy added. "Our focus is on our drive-in clinic and we are going to be expanding that here in the next weeks to include all-day Saturday clinics. Our most efficient way to deliver the vaccine is through our set-up here."

UnityPoint Health's Tricia Newland told Local 5 they are not playing favorites with the vaccine.

"There has to be a couple of things in place," said Newland. "One, the school district has to be ready. Then we have to be ready and we have to have the supply. And as it turns out, Dowling reached out to us very early and they happened to be ready before others."

Newland said she understands people are frustrated with the process, but said the priority population for UnityPoint is those 65 and older. 

"We have an entire team just trying to do the best we can, and frankly, that's what it comes down to. We are doing the best we can to get these vaccines into people's arms," said Newland. "If we waited for the perfect plan or the perfect prioritization within the various phases, we would be paralyzed and we wouldn't get this done. And we just feel like, doing the best we can is all we can do at this point."

Iowa's largest school district, Des Moines Public Schools, has partnered with MercyOne Des Moines Medical Center to organize a Saturday clinic for 500 staff members. That's just 10% of the district's workforce.

"We fully anticipate that additional clinics will set up in the days ahead, but that is all contingent upon the availability of the vaccine," DMPS spokesman Phil Roeder said in an email to Local 5. "This clinic will be available to in-school staff (teachers, office managers, principals, etc) as well as operational staff that has contact with students (such as food service workers and bus drivers)."

Roeder said about 150 employees have already made arrangements on their own to get a vaccine.

The Urbandale Community School District is having trouble finding a community health partner to bring the vaccine on-site to its employees.

In a statement, spokeswoman Dena Claire said:

"Our preference would be to schedule a vaccination clinic for our staff; however, after reaching out to numerous agencies and health care providers, we have been unable to find a partner who is able to assist us with scheduling a vaccination clinic because of what we have been told is a current shortage of doses."

District leaders in Urbandale are communicating information to staff about the latest vaccination plans.

The Johnston Community School District and Ames Community School District have found community partners to vaccinate staff on-site. In Ames, Story County Public Health is working on a vaccination clinic for school staff and teachers. 

According to an official there, ACSD has created a tiered system to allow for higher-risk staff to be vaccinated sooner. Groups 1 and 2 will consist of those with ADA or other identified accommodations, as well as special education teachers and education assistants.

JCSD has found a partner in the Grimes branch of Medicap Pharmacy to set up an on-site vaccination clinic for staff and teachers. 

Because of the shortage, Johnston school leaders don't know the exact date of their clinic, though they believe it would happen sometime in mid-February.

Saydel Community School District superintendent Todd Martin told Local 5 he planned to partner with a local pharmacy to offer on-site vaccinations, but he was told last week "there were issues with these entities receiving the vaccination allotments ... Additionally, it was explained that future allocations would be limited further exacerbating the problem."

"There is mounting frustration across our organization as we have one person who was able to successfully receive the vaccination thus far and to my knowledge appointments are hard if not impossible to receive at this time for our Saydel CSD Staff," Martin said. 

"I hope this was helpful and not interpreted as negative in nature as we are all working to the same ends here."