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Iowa won't immediately offer COVID-19 shots to all seniors, despite federal recommendation

Tony Leys Nick Coltrain
Des Moines Register

Iowa does not plan to immediately offer coronavirus vaccinations to all people older than 65, as the federal government recommended Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health said. 

"Once we have reasonable confidence that supply meets the demands of this broader eligibility criteria, we will activate the broader distribution criteria," the department said in a news release Tuesday afternoon. "From the very beginning (of) this distribution effort, it has been our goal to reach all Iowans."

Iowa's vaccination program, which started in mid-December, has focused on front-line health care workers and residents and staff of long-term care facilities so far.

More:When, where can I get a COVID-19 vaccine in Iowa? And other coronavirus questions answered

The department announced Tuesday that the next round of vaccinations, expected to start by Feb. 1, is to include Iowans 75 or older. Other eligible groups are to include:

  • School and day care staff.
  • Police and firefighters.
  • Prison and jail staff and inmates.
  • Disabled people and their caregivers.
  • People living in congregate settings not already covered.
  • Meatpacking plant workers. 

Those groups were recommended for inclusion Monday by a panel of experts advising Kelly Garcia, interim director of the health department. Garcia decided to add health inspectors and government officials and staff who work at the Iowa Capitol during the legislative session.

More:

Federal official: Everyone 65 or older should be eligible

Earlier Tuesday, the nation's top health administrator announced a major shift in federal recommendations on coronavirus vaccinations. U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar urged states to open vaccinations to everyone 65 or older. Azar also said states should not hold back vaccines to ensure people get a second shot three or four weeks later. He said production and shipment of the vaccines should be able to provide follow-up shots. 

“The administration in the states has been too narrowly focused," Azar said. 

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday that 98,691 Iowans have received at least one of the two-dose coronavirus vaccinations, and 208,875 doses of the vaccines have been delivered to the state. 

Garcia, speaking to Iowa legislators Tuesday, noted that Azar's department plans to dramatically ramp up delivery of the vaccines to states. She said once supplies increase, "we will quickly pivot" to other groups, including people ages 65-75 and younger adults with chronic health problems. 

The health department said information would be available soon on how the vaccines will be distributed to the broader groups. Hundreds of local pharmacies and clinics could pitch in, and some employers may arrange to have shots administered at their workplaces. Public Health officials have said county health departments may also set up central vaccination centers. 

Iowa official: It will takes months to distribute vaccines

Ken Sharp, a state health department administrator overseeing the effort, told legislators Tuesday that although the second round of vaccinations is to begin Feb. 1, it could take many weeks to work through the hundreds of thousands of Iowans who will qualify for the vaccine.

"We need everybody to understand: Not everybody's going to get their vaccine on Feb. 2," he said. "They're not even going to get their vaccine necessarily by the 15th" of February, or the end of February.

Sharp said the pace of vaccination will be heavily dependent on supply, which is coordinated by the federal government.

"Our message continues to be: Please be patient," he said. "... It is not as easy as a light switch."

Many counties, including Polk, have already expanded their vaccination efforts to include some people who work in health-related fields, such as ambulance crews, home health aides and pharmacy staff.

In addition, the Iowa Department of Human Services has begun vaccinating staff at its six institutions, which include the Cherokee and Independence mental hospitals and the Glenwood and Woodward Resource Centers for people with intellectual disabilities. 

Polk County official: 'The post-holiday surge is underway'

The vaccinations come as Iowa and the nation continue to face deadly outbreaks of the coronavirus. By Tuesday morning, the state had recorded 4,222 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. Although hospitalizations have dropped more than half since a November surge, 552 Iowans were hospitalized Tuesday with COVID-19.

Polk County warned on Tuesday that even with the vaccines being distributed, coronavirus infections are on an alarming upward trend.

New positive tests fell steadily after November's surge, but they're climbing again in the new year, experts said at a public online meeting Tuesday. Polk County Health Director Helen Eddy warned the trend means that Iowa’s most populous county could be back at peak levels of COVID-19 by the end of January.

“The post-holiday surge is underway,” Eddy said. “… We are trending to reach the peak of the previous November surge in the next 14 days, regardless of vaccine progress. A severe stress on our health care, schools and community is upon us."

Public Health officials continue to advise the public to avoid large groups, to wear masks when out in public and to wash hands frequently. Those precautions will be necessary for months to come, they say.

Tony Leys covers health care for the Register. Reach him at tleys@registermedia.com or 515-284-8449.