Half of Iowa care facility workers refuse vaccination, creating a stockpile of unused vaccine

Gov. Kim Reynolds discusses COVID-19 vaccine allocation at a news conference Jan. 27, 2021 at Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

With half the state’s nursing home workers having refused the COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Kim Reynolds declined to say Wednesday whether employees at state-run care facilities should be required to get the vaccine.

The head of the Iowa Department of Public Health said she wants to make sure state workers caring for elderly and disabled individuals are “comfortable” with the vaccine and capable of making “the decisions that are best for them.”

The refusal of health care workers to get the vaccine has led to a stockpile of unused vaccines that the state is now working to reclaim so that older Iowans waiting for the vaccine can receive it, the governor said.

Many of the workers at Iowa’s state-run facilities are caring for elderly individuals and people with underlying health conditions for whom the coronavirus is particularly dangerous. According to state and federal data, 42% of the Iowans who have died of coronavirus were residents of care facilities.

So far, though, more than 40% of the workers at the state-run Iowa Veterans Home have refused to accept the vaccine, despite participating in educational seminars intended to encourage more of them to take it.

The state operates six other care facilities, including one home for juveniles and four congregate-living sites for people with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues.

At a press conference Wednesday, Reynolds said that about 50% of the workers in all of the state’s long-term care facilities, the vast majority of which are privately run, refused the vaccine during the initial roll-out this month. Some who previously refused now say they plan to get the vaccine in the weeks ahead.

Asked whether the state should make vaccination a condition of employment for working in a state-run health care facility, Reynolds referred the question to Kelly Garcia, director of both the Iowa Department of Human Services and Iowa Department of Public Health.

“Right now, we are not making it a condition of employment, and that really is to give everyone an opportunity to make the choice,” Garcia said. “We have other ways that we will certainly incent individuals taking it at our state-operated facilities … You know, education is really key to this. We want to make sure our employees feel comfortable and have all of the material available at their fingertips to make the decisions that are best for them. And I think we’ll wait, we’ll see exactly what this looks like for our facilities. Of course, safety for our residents and our employees is always at the forefront of our minds. And we’ll consider what options look like moving forward once we have those data points.”

Asked whether the state will disclose the vaccine-refusal rates at Iowa’s privately run nursing homes, Garcia said, “We are very much posting all of that online. You can see very clearly what our acceptance rate looks like.”

A department spokesman later acknowledged the Iowa Department of Human Services publishes vaccine-acceptance rates for only the six facilities it operates, and not for the roughly 440 privately run nursing homes.

During the press conference, Reynolds indicated that about 90% of Iowa’s nursing home residents have agreed to get the vaccine.

“The rate has been a little bit lower among staff during the first phase — that is averaging about 50%,” she said. “However, when I talked to our pharmacy partners this week, they are seeing about a 30% increase in staff choosing to be vaccinated during the second phase.”

Reynolds said the health care workers refusing the vaccines have contributed to “a growing unused supply of vaccines at both CVS and Walgreens. Since the federal government allocates vaccine for the program directly to the pharmacy partners, we are unable to reclaim it for use at the state level. However, in visiting with them and upon my request, the pharmacies have agreed to return the unused vaccine so it can be reallocated for state use. We’re working on the logistics of that now with the CDC.”