Many state-employed caregivers are still refusing the COVID-19 vaccine

Up to 45% of workers at state-run care facilities are still declining a COVID-19 vaccine. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Up to 45% of the state employees at publicly managed care facilities are still refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the governor’s ongoing pleas for all Iowans to be vaccinated.

Some of those who are refusing the vaccine are health care workers providing direct, hands-on care for individuals, and some are administrators.

The six state-run care facilities, all managed by the Iowa Department of Human Services, employ a total of 1,848 people. Of those, 664 employees, or 36%, had refused the vaccine as of April 16, according to DHS.

Between March 5 and April 16, the total number of workers in those facilities refusing the vaccine dropped by 8%, from 722 to 664, the DHS data shows.

Of the 639 employees at western Iowa’s Glenwood Resource Center for profoundly disabled individuals, 281 employees, or 45% of the workforce there, have refused the vaccine. That’s only a slight reduction from six weeks ago, when when the percentage of refusals was reported to be 49%.

Of the 281 Glenwood employees who have refused the vaccine, 224 are considered to be either direct-care or clinical workers. Nine of the home’s 34 administrative workers have also refused the vaccine.

At the Boys State Training School in Eldora, 80 of the facility’s 183 workers, or 44% or the workforce, have declined the vaccine. In early March, the refusal rate at the school was 42%.

One possible factor in the Eldora home’s low vaccine rate: DHS says no vaccines have been delivered to the school, unlike the other DHS-run facilities. Vaccinations have instead been provided by local public health officials and pharmacies.

Although Gov. Kim Reynolds has strongly encouraged all eligible Iowans to get the vaccine, she has also said she will not be requiring state workers in the six care facilities to be vaccinated.

At a news conference Wednesday, Reynolds said “vaccine hesitancy is starting to become a real factor” not just in Iowa, but across the country.

Gov. Kim Reynold, at her news conference April 21, 2021, appealed to Iowans to get vaccinated for COVID-19. (Screenshot via Iowa PBS)

“Vaccination remains the best defense against the virus, and it is how we will downgrade COVID-19 from pandemic status to effectively dealing with it as we do the flu, without disrupting our lives, livelihoods or sense of normalcy,” she said. “If you are opting to ‘wait and see,’ what are you waiting for? If you have been a hard ‘no’ from the start, what is your reason? If you can’t answer those questions, we hope you will take the time to reconsider.”

Last month, DHS officials said they were “having conversations with our team members to answer questions and instill confidence” in the vaccine and increase the vaccination rate among the staff.

Jane Hudson of the advocacy organization Disability Rights Iowa has said she’s “shocked” the state isn’t requiring employees of those facilities to be vaccinated.

In two of the six state-run facilities, the number of workers declining the vaccine has actually increased since early March. DHS officials say that’s because some workers have only recently become eligible and weren’t previously offered the vaccine. Now that they are being offered the vaccine, some of those newly eligible employees are refusing it.

DHS spokesman Matt Highland said the agency is continuing to work on the issue. “We know it is critical our team members at our facilities be vaccinated and are working to educate, answer questions and explore incentives to increase the uptake rate,” he said.

Here’s a more detailed look at the infection rates and the vaccination-refusal rates in each of the DHS-run facilities as of April 16, when DHS last updated its data:

  • Cherokee Mental Health Institute: The facility has about 175 employees, eight of whom have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 90 days. As of April 16, 55 of the workers have declined the vaccine. In early March, the number who had declined the vaccine was 66.
  • Independence Mental Health Institute: The facility has 204 staff members. Of those, one has been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 90 days, and 54 have declined the vaccine — down slightly from the 62 reported in early March.
  • Civil Commitment Unit for Sex Offenders: The facility has 135 staff members, 48 of whom have contracted COVID-19 in the past 90 days. As of April 16, 45 workers had declined the vaccine, which is an increase from the 38 workers who were reported to have refused in early March. (According to DHS, 82 of the facility’s 129 patients have had COVID-19 at some point in the past 90 days.)
  • Glenwood Resource Center: The facility for profoundly disabled Iowans has 639 employees. Of those,  three have contracted COVID-19 in the past 90 days. As of April 16, 281 workers have declined the vaccine, compared to the 323 who were reported to have the vaccine in early March.
  • Woodward Resource Center: This facility for disabled Iowans has 512 employees, none of whom have contracted COVID-19 in the past 90 days. Of the 512 workers, 149 had declined the vaccine as of April 16. That’s down slightly from early March when 157 workers were reported to have declined the vaccine.
  • The Boys State Training School in Eldora: The school and residential facility for troubled youth has 183 employees. Of those,  three have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 90 days. As of April 16, 80 of the workers have declined the vaccine, which is up slightly from early March when 76 workers were reported to have declined the vaccine.