Vaccine rollout sees highs and lows in Tama County

MTHC Pharmacist Patrick Bolte administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a person at a mobile vaccine clinic the MTHC staff held at Des Moines North schools on May 6. Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder/Des Moines Public Schools

As COVID-19 vaccines have become more available in recent weeks, the number of individuals choosing to take part in the vaccine has seen steady decline after an initial spike in early April.

According to Center for Disease Control (CDC) coronavirus data, less than half of Iowa’s total population have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Throughout the state, Tama County’s vaccination numbers have been above average with just over 6,900 people (41 percent of the total population) fully vaccinated as of May 10.

Since late December, two lanes of vaccine administration have been operating simultaneously in Tama County. Tama County Public Health (TCPH) receives and administers vaccines from the state of Iowa and the Meskwaki Tribal Health Clinic (MTHC) receives and administers vaccines from the federal Indian Health Service (IHS) organization.

TCPH vaccine clinics have largely taken place at the former Iowa Juvenile Home facility in Toledo. The county organization also has supplied vaccine clinics at pharmacies in Traer and Toledo and the family practice clinic in Dysart. Additionally, Iowa Premium, Tama County’s largest employer, has hosted vaccine clinics at their location.

MTHC began work administering vaccines to elderly community members and essential workers directly within the Meskwaki Nation, following the same priority population guidelines that the CDC and the state were recommending earlier this year.

Months later, the number of eligible persons vaccinated within the Meskwaki Nation community is well ahead of the state average, and at 75 percent, is above the 70 percent threshold experts say is needed for herd immunity.

MTHC Nurse Manager Sara Augspurger said as more people became vaccinated and were able to share first-hand experiences of getting vaccinated, others around them felt encouraged to also participate.

“Basically, what it came down to were people that weren’t initially interested in getting vaccinated, eventually came in and said, ‘I don’t want to get my dad sick. I don’t want my uncle to get sick or my aunt to get sick because of me.’ So even the people that were hesitant, would come in and say, ‘I’m doing it not for me, but for somebody else.'”

Health providers across the state experienced an abrupt plateau of vaccine participation in mid-April, with concerns emerging about a longer than anticipated progression toward herd immunity.

If the current trend prevails, TCPH plans to reduce the number of vaccine clinics at the Toledo facility from three per week down to one.

TCPH Director Shannon Zoffka said her organization plans to rollout more targeted vaccine efforts by coordinating with area employers to bring a mobile clinic into the workplace or to attend public gatherings like farmers markets in hopes of increased vaccine access resulting in increased participation.

In recent weeks, the staff at the Meskwaki Nation clinic have been working to share their supply of Pfizer vaccines with surrounding communities.

On April 8, MTHC held its first external vaccine clinic at the civic center in Tama, where over 300 members of the public came came for their first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

MTHC’s allotment of the Pfizer vaccine has also allowed them to assist with vaccine rollout at high schools as the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are not yet approved for people under the age of 18.

Through a partnership with the Urban Dreams organization and Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, MTHC was able to bring a mobile vaccine clinic to Des Moines North High School on May 6.

Similar clinics have been organized at high schools in Marshalltown and Le Grand and plans are to continue to make mobile clinic opportunities available as this week the FDA expanded approval of the Pfizer vaccine to 12-16 year olds.

MTHC Director Rudy Papakee praised the efforts of his staff in dealing with the challenges of COVID-19 testing, treatment, vaccinations as well as mobile outreach efforts.

“They’ve gone above and beyond,” Papakee said. “From the day the Tribe shut down, we were the only entity still open. So we still saw patients, our nurses were still ready and on hand to provide the COVID testing. They’ve been at the forefront of this since day one and continue to be at the forefront providing the vaccinations. They’ve responded, they’ve adapted and have been extremely resilient. Their willingness to go above and beyond, always amazes me.”

In Tama County, Zoffka and the team at TCPH hope to engage with more residents throughout the county in hopes of being a resource that can help those not yet vaccinated make educated decisions about taking a vaccine for them or their families.

“I would tell people with any sort of hesitancy, or questions about the vaccine to reach out to either their regular provider or to our office to discuss those concerns and questions,” Zoffka said. “We have been involved, you know, since last year before the vaccines were even available, hearing and learning information about each vaccine. I think we can help folks understand the vaccine, how it works, what it is, and maybe help them to make a decision. Verus, just only believing what’s on social media or the opinions of people who don’t really understand the vaccine and give false information.”