Iowans shouldn’t have to be patient with unfairness, lack of planning in vaccine rollout

A vial of COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo by Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images)

Gov. Kim Reynolds said last week that Iowa was 47th in the nation on supplies of COVID-19 vaccine received from the federal government and 46th on distribution of the drug.

Iowans are, to say the least, frustrated. As an Indianola man commented on Twitter: “Trying to get a vaccine for my parents … is like trying to get a concert ticket that sells out in the first ten minutes.”

Reynolds said state officials were exploring “barriers” to vaccine rollout. On the same day, Iowa Capital Dispatch’s Clark Kauffman found one:  Almost half of the state’s 1,700 vaccinators are allowed to reserve the doses for their existing customers and patients and turn others away. That leaves public health departments and pharmacies to vaccinate those who qualify but are not part of an existing network.

The practice is short-sighted on the part of providers. Look, these folks have been on the front lines of this pandemic for a year. Their staffs have worked heroically, and far too many have died. They rightly were at the front of the line to get the vaccines. But once the staff has had their shots, it’s still to their benefit to get the rest of the population vaccinated as quickly as possible.

From a public relations standpoint, these health-care organizations could be winning over new patients and customers by impressing them with their caring and competence. Running a members-only club that turns away desperate Iowans will not attract new customers.

Worse, it’s discriminatory for those who already come out on the short end of the health-care stick: Those without health insurance. People without health insurance are much less likely to have a medical home where they can sign up or be notified when a vaccine is available. And while they can go to the public health department or, possibly, a pharmacy, they start with fewer options than those with insurance and an existing relationship with a medical provider. That’s not fair.

The problem is exacerbated by the state’s lack of planning for a centralized, fair system for getting Iowans signed up and scheduled for a vaccine. The Iowa Department of Public Health put out a request for proposals Thursday, with a 24-hour deadline, for a vendor to operate an application/scheduling system and call center to help Iowans access a vaccine when they become qualified.

Other states had centralized registration in place weeks ago, and Iowa is just looking around for vendors now? (The 24-hour deadline on the RFP is also a red flag to potential applicants that there’s already a preferred vendor.)

There’s one thing Gov. Reynolds can do right now to at least end the unfair patronage element to the vaccine rollout. She can do what the Colorado Department of Public Health did in mid-January:  Require all vaccinators to create systems that allow people to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine regardless of their patient status.

The directive in Colorado, according to news reports, was meant to “dismantle barriers to access, such as unnecessary identification and patient affiliation requirements.”

Interesting, Colorado also called on vaccinators to go by the “honor system” in allowing people to claim eligibility without having to show ID. That’s not the way Iowa would likely go while vaccine supplies remain scarce, but it’s indicative of a state that is prioritizing getting people vaccinated over quibbling about their status.

Over 5,000 Iowans have died and the state is reporting 900 to 1,000 new coronavirus cases every day, and yet those in charge of state government are behaving as if this pandemic is over or never even happened.

Reynolds and other Iowa leaders have been begging Iowans for patience in accessing a vaccine, while rushing through legislation to force teachers and staff back into classrooms before they can be inoculated.

Iowans knew they would have to be patient but most didn’t realize they would also have to be patients to get a vaccine from a hospital or clinic. Most of us have no choice but to bide our time as vaccine supplies slowly become available. But we don’t have to be patient with unfair policies, a lack of adequate planning, confusing or nonexistent communication and general incompetence.