Public health officials plan coronavirus vaccines for those facing barriers

Local public health departments, in the midst of targeted outreach to vulnerable populations, say the contamination of millions of coronavirus vaccines should not have an impact on the additional allocation of doses that are anticipated to arrive this week.

Both Linn and Johnson county public health departments expect to receive hundreds of doses of the one-shot COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, which officials plan to direct to populations that face barriers to finding and obtaining the vaccine.

The first targeted mass vaccination clinic is scheduled for Cedar Rapids this week to reach people of color — who have faced disproportionately high rates of infection and death over the past year.

Hosted by the Cedar Rapids NAACP, the clinic aims to vaccinate 100 people using the Johnson & Johnson shot, which was allocated by Linn County Public Health. The clinic will take place over two days — Tuesday, April 6, and Saturday, April 10.

“We want the community as a whole to be safer for everyone,” said Dedric Doolin, Cedar Rapids NAACP president.

However, news this past week about a human error at a manufacturing lab, which resulted in the contamination of millions of doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, may have soured some residents’ desire to get the jab, local advocates say.

That has added another layer to the challenge for local public health officials and other community leaders to address among certain vulnerable populations, some of whom already may have been on the fence about getting the shot due to misinformation and chronic distrust of government entities, among a multitude of other reasons.

Linn County Public Health is expected to receive 1,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, set aside especially for officials to administer to vulnerable or at-risk residents, said Heather Meador, the agency’s clinical services supervisor.

Johnson County Public Health will receive 500 doses, also directed specifically to hard-to-reach county residents. Sam Jarvis, the agency’s community health manager, didn’t specify whether the county was planning any mass vaccination clinics at this time, but noted the department is hopeful these allocations will continue in the future.

The state won’t see an effect on its Johnson & Johnson allocations this week or next week, an Iowa Department of Public Health spokeswoman said Thursday, adding that the department will update stakeholders on any potential downstream impacts “as soon as possible.”

The contamination originated at a Baltimore plant, but does not affect any doses being delivered or currently used nationwide, according to the New York Times. However, it’s unclear how it will impact the 24 million doses expected to be shipped from the facility over the next month.

That news was enough to prompt some to reconsider visiting next week’s vaccine clinic hosted by the Cedar Rapids NAACP. Doolin said he has received calls from residents who say they’re not confident in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and now are on the verge of giving up their scheduled spot.

Doolin said those calls still are a small number compared to the others eager to receive any protection against the novel coronavirus. However, anything that may prompt some to opt out of the vaccine is a major concern for those advocating for vulnerable populations locally.

“If someone wants the shot, we’re trying to do our best to make sure the vaccine is available to them and that they don’t have to wait a long period of time,” Doolin said.

Misinformation a big concern among advocates

The Cedar Rapids NAACP decided to host a vaccine clinic targeted to people of color “because there’s a need for it,” Doolin said.

As with many Iowans, residents of color have struggled to obtain a shot in recent weeks, but many of those individuals face additional barriers. For example, some can’t take the time to drive several miles for an appointment in another town, as some Iowans have opted to do.

In addition, national polling shows people of color tend to be more hesitant to take the vaccine compared to other groups. Many experts have attributed to that a distrust of government officials as well as historical trauma that resulted from events such as the 40-year Tuskegee Untreated Syphilis study and other experiments conducted on Black Americans over the years.

Doolin said some residents also have believed they’ve been treated poorly by the medical profession, leading them to cut those relationships.

At this point, NAACP Cedar Rapids is not involved in urging people to get a vaccination, Doolin said. However, that could change in coming weeks and months as the vaccine supply increases and public health officials work to ensure protection against the virus through herd immunity.

Doolin said he’s concerned in particular about misinformation about the vaccines that’s making its way through the community, by social media or other means.

Misinformation also is a major concern among advocates working to reach immigrant and refugee communities, many of whom hail from African countries and experience some of the same challenges Black Americans face, said Mugisha Bwenge, chief executive officer of not-for-profit United We March Forward.

Not only is it difficult to get factual information to these families, but that material has to be in their language and translated in a way that is culturally appropriate, Bwenge noted.

Organizations such as the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids have worked in recent weeks to gather and distribute that information to the clients they work with.

But Bwenge said it’s also a matter of having conversations with families and addressing their individual concerns about the vaccines. In many cases, talking to someone who already has had the shot can be enough to address their fears, he said.

“We can’t understand what everyone is thinking, so we have to make sure we’re providing factual information and making sure they know the vaccine is safe,” Bwenge said.

Linn County Public Health officials challenged the state this week on its decision to allocate shipments of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to colleges and certain large employers, instead of setting aside those doses for vulnerable populations.

The one-shot vaccine is ideal to reach populations that face barriers to getting to clinics as well as those who may be lost in the follow-up for the second dose, such as those who experience homelessness.

The letter, which was dated March 31 and sent to top leadership at the Iowa Department of Public Health, was written by the county agency’s community health division manager, Tricia Kitzmann.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that the Governor’s Office does not trust local public health to identify and serve individuals in our community who are most vulnerable,” Kitzmann wrote.

As cases rise, officials still encourage safety measures

Even as the vaccine rollout continues, public health officials remain wary of increasing numbers of infected Iowans. In recent weeks, new COVID-19 cases and related hospitalizations are on the rise nationwide, prompting federal officials to encourage Americans not to let their guard down and President Joe Biden to urge states to reinstate mitigation measures.

Though other states have seen a higher increase in recent weeks, Iowa has experienced only a slight uptick in new cases.

Linn County Public Health’s Meador said local officials — with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and spring break traveling over the past month — were concerned about a new wave of infections. But so far there has been a small increase in cases, not an explosion — meaning contract tracing and vaccine distribution is “still very manageable” for public health and local vaccine providers.

Even when faced with a higher case count, officials don’t anticipate a surge in cases would hinder vaccine rollout, they say.

While officials are beginning to see good results in congregate areas — such as long-term care facilities — it’s a reminder the vaccine has not yet offered full protection to the community as a whole.

As a result, public health officials are continuing to urge residents to practice COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

“We continue to remind everyone the number of people vaccinated is far less than people who have not been vaccinated,” Meador said.

“Yes, more and more people are getting vaccinated, and we’re grateful for that, but we have not reached herd immunity.”

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Public health officials plan coronavirus vaccines for those facing barriers