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County health departments report low stock ahead of expanded vaccination group

As more Iowans become eligible for the vaccine, local health department leaders don't have nearly enough doses to administer.

IOWA, USA — More than half a million Iowans will become eligible to schedule an appointment to get the COVID-19 vaccine beginning Feb. 1, but many local health departments say it will take weeks to make a dent in that number at the rate they are receiving the vaccine.

In Marshall County, which has 7,200 residents ages 65 and older, the county health department reports it is getting 400 doses for next week.

Wapello County Public Health Clinical Director Lynelle Diers said her county didn't receive any doses last week.

"We've been blindsided," Diers said. "The most we ever got was at the beginning, in late December, and that was 400 doses. For Phase 1B, we have 200 to give out." 

The Iowa Department of Public Health works with the federal government to bring in doses of the vaccine each week. The state then allocates those doses to each county based on population.

On Thursday, IDPH said Iowa will receive 19,500 Pfizer doses and 25,800 Moderna doses from Feb. 1 to Feb. 15.

Diers said she only gets a week's notice of the number of doses her county is getting, making it difficult to plan.

"In all my years of working in public health, I've never seen such a logistical challenge like we have with this vaccine," Diers said. "We're just worn down. It's all very frustrating."

Mahaska County says they only received 100 doses.

"We thought it would be more, but we know that's not enough," Mahaska County Public Health Coordinator Patty Malloy said. "We just want people to understand that February 1 we can start Phase 1B. It will just take time."

The department added a second phone line to keep up with the number of calls. They will be posting updates on vaccinations on their Facebook page.

"We're working as fast as we can," Malloy said.

For the last month-and-a-half, county public health leaders have been working to get health care workers, long term care residents and staff vaccinated. It's a small population size compared to those in Phase 1B, which includes Iowans 65 and older, teachers, first responders, daycare providers and government personnel, among others.

Ever since Gov. Kim Reynolds and IDPH announced Iowans age 65 and older can get the vaccine in Phase 1B on Jan. 21, public health departments' phones have been ringing off the hook.

Credit: WOI/Iowa Dept. of Public Health
This illustration shows who is included in the different tiers of Iowa's Phase 1B vaccination plan, set to begin Feb. 1

"I think people are confused that we have a lot of vaccines to give away, but that's just not the case," Warren County Public Health Administrator Jodene DeVault said. 

"We're giving out as quickly as we can."

DeVault did not provide Local 5 the number of vaccines the county was given for the week of Feb. 1, saying she "didn't want to add to the anxiety" surrounding vaccination information. 

Warren County received 3,300 doses since late December, according to DeVault. The county's population is more than 50,000.

Up in Webster County, public health officials finished up vaccinating Iowans in Phase 1A this week and used the remaining doses to begin vaccinating some school district staff with health conditions or those 65 and older.

"It's a challenge," said Kari Prescott, head of the health department based in Fort Dodge. "We're just trying to lay out the best plan for our community."

The state allocated 200 doses to Webster County for the week of Feb. 1. Prescott said the trick is determining how to divvy out those vaccines to the elderly and the rest of the folks in Tier 1. 

The state has left it up to individual county health departments to create a system for residents to sign up and schedule an appointment. Local 5 has found a patchwork of approaches from county public health leaders to administer the vaccine.

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"We have a plan to go to elderly apartment complexes next week and vaccinate those people," Prescott said. "So we're not really taking appointments at this time."

Marion County Public Health Director Kim Dorn said the county is getting 200 doses for next week, though she's expecting more information on Friday regarding vaccine allocations.

"We still have people who come face-to-face with actual COVID patients who need protection first," Dorn wrote in an email to Local 5. "Law enforcement and fire department personnel who go out on calls with EMS. Also, we still have some EMS who have not gotten vaccinated."

"We're still working on the vaccinating infrastructure."

Dorn did not respond via email when asked if the county plans on vaccinating residents 65 and up beginning Feb. 1.

In Wapello County, Diers said the biggest struggle lately has been scheduling people to get the vaccine and actually having people show up. Her team doesn't want to throw away the vaccine, but they only have so many hours to use it before it goes to waste. 

"We always keep a list of people who can come in at a moment's notice, so we call them up and tell them to get here now," she said.

In Iowa's most populous county, Polk County, vaccine appointments for the elderly this week were booked within hours. They are expecting the same influx of potential patients on Friday when they open another round of appointments.

For the first week of February, the county has 2,575 doses to use for those getting the vaccine for the first time. 4,500 Moderna doses will be given out to those getting a booster shot.

Though more weekly shipments of vaccines have been promised to the state for the month of February, county health departments still have no information about the weekly number of doses. 

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