Iowa expands COVID-19 vaccine eligibility, though appointments remain scarce

While the Iowa Department of Public Health has extended vaccination eligibility to individuals under 64 with certain conditions, officials in Johnson County are still dealing with limited vaccination supplies.


Shivansh Ahuja

Syringes for the COVID-19 vaccine lay on a counter at the VA Medical Center in Iowa City on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2020. The center received the Modern vaccine for its employees.

Marco Oceguera, News Reporter

Some public health agencies and other local facilities in the state are struggling to meet the increased demand of patients in high-risk groups after Iowa expanded eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine to people under 64 with certain preexisting health conditions.

According to an Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson, an estimated half of Iowa’s 1.9 million adults aged 18-64 have at least chronic condition. That’s a massive expansion of eligibility from Phase 1B, which included people over the age of 65, K-12 workers, agriculture workers, and prison inmates and staff, among others.

As of March 10, 328,332 Iowans have been fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the state’s vaccine tracking website.

Sam Jarvis, Committee Health Manager at Johnson County Public Health, said that Johnson County has yet to receive any doses of the single-dose Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, which was recently approved for emergency-use authorization.

In Iowa, 17 counties, not including Johnson, with high numbers of people in the Phase 1B priority groups got the first shipment.

“Johnson County Public Health has not been a recipient of Johnson and Johnson single-dose vaccine yet,” Jarvis said. “There are 17 other counties [in Iowa] that were identified this past week or so, primarily to vaccinate their manufacturing populations.”

Sara Willette, chief data officer of the Iowa COVID-19 tracker, expressed interest at UIHC to get the vaccine, though hasn’t gotten an appointment yet. Willette is immunocompromised, and is looking forward to receiving a vaccine after months in lockdown.

“I am excited because the mRNA vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, will be perfectly safe for me because there’s no virus of any type in those,” Willette said. “Will I make an immune response? That’s a big question we don’t know.”

Willette also said that a lack of communication between the Iowa Department of Public Health and county governments have made it more difficult to vaccinate people in the state.

“I think a lot of counties were expecting more guidance and they didn’t get it,” Willette said.

In an email to The Daily Iowan, Jennifer Brown, a spokesperson for UI Health Care, wrote that UI Health Care will begin contacting eligible individuals in the area with guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health and Johnson County Public Health.

“Our vaccination clinics will continue to follow eligibility guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health, as well as Johnson County Public Health, and will contact eligible individuals to set up vaccine appointments based on available supply,” Brown wrote.

Jarvis said that patients in Iowa will not be required to show proof of having a preexisting health condition upon receiving their vaccination.

While Willette is hopeful about the prospects of vaccinating all Iowans by July, Willette warned that many counties in the state are on the verge of experiencing a spring surge in COVID-19 cases, which could potentially be dominated by the more contagious UK-variant of the virus. 

“When it comes to Iowa specifically, rural areas are starting to see increasing positivity,” Willette said. “Densely populated areas like Iowa City, not so much.”

“I’m expecting that if we have a surge, it’s going to be predominantly in people who are under 65,” Willette said. “There are going to be some populations that are currently protected like health care workers, police, firefighters, and educators.”

Willette urged unvaccinated Iowans to stay vigilant in following public health guidance over the next few months for Iowans who are immunocompromised and not yet vaccinated as officials work to vaccinate the population and get the pandemic under control.

“We can absolutely prevent a spring surge,” Willette said. “We could be having backyard barbecues again by August.”