Emergency Management and Public Health of Winnebago and Hancock counties is starting the next sub-phase of COVID 19 vaccinations on or around Feb. 1.
Andy Buffington, the emergency manager coordinator for both counties, explained that Phase 1b vaccinations will start becoming available for persons age 65 and older and essential workers that include pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education workers, early education and child care workers, law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and first responders, among others.
However, he noted that all indications are that the initial Phase 1b vaccine allocations coming from the CDC to the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) and finally Iowa counties will be very limited locally. The allocated amounts will be divided with 50 percent being administered to the 65-plus age group and 50 percent to the essential-worker priority group.
“There will likely be less than 20,000 doses distributed statewide initially for Phase 1b,” said Buffington. “Hopefully, there will be weekly allocations, but it is going to go slow. So, we are asking people for patience.”
Since Winnebago and Hancock counties have relatively low populations compared to many other Iowa counties, their initial allocations may be especially low. However, both counties are well prepared to provide the vaccinations as they are made available.
Hancock County Health Systems (HCHS) will coordinate the Hancock County vaccination clinics. Miller Pharmacy, Hy-Vee Forest City Pharmacy and MercyOne Forest City Clinic will be allocated doses of the vaccine to distribute and administer in Winnebago County once Phase 1b doses arrive, partnering with Winnebago County Public Health and Winnebago County Emergency Management.
Buffington said the Iowa Department of Public Health directed that Phase 1b vaccinations would begin on or around Feb. 1 because Iowa counties have progressed differently through Phase 1a for healthcare workers and long-term care facility staff and residents.
He said both Winnebago and Hancock counties completed initial vaccinations to healthcare workers seeking the shots ahead of schedule, but have been and can go back to immunize anyone else in that group going forward. He estimated that 50 to 70 percent of healthcare workers in the two counties took the vaccines in Phase 1a.
While Emergency Management does not have statistics for long-term care facilities in the counties, Buffington said he anticipated the vaccinations rates there may be even higher given the direct impacts of the virus outbreaks at a number of care facilities.
Buffington said the demand for COVID-19 vaccine seems to be increasing based on higher call volumes and some people who were eligible and undecided about taking the shots now deciding to do so. He stated that a fair number of law enforcement officers and other response workers, who may have direct contacts with persons, have already been vaccinated under the counties’ Phase 1a efforts.
He also noted that he anticipates higher vaccination rates in both counties going forward, albeit it being slow due to allocations that are controlled by the State of Iowa.
“Iowa went to persons age 65 and older, which was 75,” said Buffington. “Both counties have a high number of individuals in that demographic, but unfortunately the vaccine is very limited at this time.”
Winnebago County Public Health Administrator Julie Sorenson told County Supervisors on Jan. 26 that the county is seeing and anticipating only about 100 doses per week.
"The supply is very low for these vaccines and the demand is high," said Sorenson. "Our community needs to be patient. This is coming from the state. It is not us."
Both Sorenson and Buffington cited a number of angry calls that have been received about the vaccines not being readily available.
Winnebago County Public Health is handling Phase 1b vaccinations for essential workers after splitting the small weekly vaccine allotments with its partnering pharmacies and clinic that are administering a small number to those 65 or older by appointment.
Buffington said HCHS is so well equipped and has such vast resources so Hancock County does not require new community-county partnerships as Phase 1b begins.
Winnebago County Public Health and Hancock County/HCHS Community Health are also still completing booster shots to healthcare workers.
Both counties are exclusively using the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at this time, which requires an initial inoculation followed by a booster shot 28 days later within a range of plus or minus four days for optimal effectiveness, according to Buffington.
He said that with vaccination cards that are created after initial vaccinations and software that generates reminders for local public health officials regarding timing for each person’s second vaccination, there should be no issues with everyone getting the booster shots.
He explained that the first and second shots are exactly the same, adding that the small number of allotted doses actually makes everything much easier to manage with both counties also preparing for larger vaccine allotments as well.
“We don’t have any control over the (allotment) numbers,” said Buffington. “We’re not a population center, so we won’t see a large number of doses. However, Winnebago and Hancock counties combined have over 11,000 people considered as essential workers. I refer to who is eligible because everyone is essential. We would like to be able to offer this to everyone that wants it as soon as possible.”
At this time, the expected quantities of the vaccine going forward remain unknown and will determined by the State of Iowa.
Rob Hillesland is community editor for the Summit-Tribune. He can be reached at 641-421-0534, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.