Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
As demand for the COVID-19 vaccine has significantly slowed in Iowa, public health experts hope to turn the tide in a new statewide effort to improve vaccination rates among Iowa’s smallest communities.
University of Iowa researchers and public health organizations have received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study communities and create strategies to promote vaccine acceptance rates.
The goal of the yearlong project, which will focus specifically on 17 communities across the state, is to work with local entities to create strategies to overcome barriers and to encourage residents to seek the shot.
“We’ve only got a year,” said Natoshia Askelson, project lead and assistant professor of community and behavioral health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health. “And we are in this race against the virus. We have to get people vaccinated before the virus mutates.”
Fairfield was one of the 17 communities chosen to receive grant funds. As of Thursday, 34.2 percent of Jefferson County’s residents had been fully vaccinated, with 5,634 people having received a two-dose series from either Pfizer or Moderna, and 651 people having received a one-dose shot from Johnson & Johnson.
Jefferson County Public Health Administrator Chris Estle said she’s wasn’t clear what role her department will play in the University of Iowa’s program, but she expects to be involved in some way.
Likewise, Jefferson County Health Center Community Relations Manager Ian Bee said he is looking into the possibility the health center could be involved, too.
Estle and Bee said they hope Jefferson County’s vaccination rate will receive a big boost on Monday when the two entities team up to offer a Pfizer vaccine clinic at the Fairfield Middle School from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Vaccinations will be offered on a walk-in basis with no appointment required. They said the middle school was chosen as a location to make the setting more inviting for young children, since the Pfizer vaccine was recently approved for all people 12 years of age and older.
Monday’s clinic will be the first in the county for those under 16 to receive a COVID vaccine.
The university’s project will be conducted by the University of Iowa Prevention Research Center for Rural Health, the Iowa Public Health Association and the Iowa Immunizes Coalition.
The University of Iowa Prevention Research Center for Rural Health is one of 26 academic research centers nationwide funded by the CDC to develop and implement public health interventions, particularly in underserved communities.
The one-time $500,000 allocation will help fund initiatives in each of the 17 communities identified for this project, Askelson said.
In the first phase, researchers will collect data to understand who is not getting vaccinated in 17 of Iowa’s micropolitan towns, or communities with a population between 10,000 and 49,999. That includes Fairfield in Jefferson County and Ottumwa in Wapello County.
Based on the preliminary research they’ve conducted throughout the pandemic, Askelson said she anticipates a large portion of those individuals who aren’t opposed to the vaccine have put off getting the shot because it “hasn’t reached the top of their to-do list.”
That may be a result of busy personal lives. That can also be the result of barriers to accessing the vaccine, including those who lack transportation or are unable to take time off work for an appointment.
“There’s a group of people who will get vaccinated if we could make it easier for them,” Askelson said.
They hope to identify the causes behind vaccine hesitancy, particularly for younger children. Federal officials are anticipated to approve the shot for this subset of the population in the coming months
“The vaccine landscape is changing,” Askelson said. “So that will be different problems and different challenges and different messages and different interventions.”
Following their data collection, project leadership will partner with public health officials, health care providers and other community leaders to create strategies and interventions to encourage residents to get the shot. That could include setting up vaccine clinics outside busy stores or establishing vaccine navigators to help individuals find and get to appointments locally.
The goal is to build on initiatives already put into action by local public health officials and other community entities, Askelson said.
At the same time, Askelson said she hopes the project will help increase community trust in public health and prepare local entities to address future any future problems.
As of Thursday, about 1.3 million Iowans are fully vaccinated, or about 41 percent of the state’s population.
With the demand for the COVID-19 vaccine significantly slowed, some public health experts have expressed worry for the state’s ability to reach herd immunity, which occurs when a large portion of the community is vaccinated against a virus.
While reaching that threshold is important for Iowa’s communities, Askelson said meeting herd immunity is not the main goal of the project. Their focus is to breakdown barriers and take the vaccine effort one step at a time.
“Let’s get the next shot, let’s get the next person vaccinated,” Askelson said. “That’s one more person who’s not going to get COVID-19, that’s one more person that’s protecting their neighbors. Even if we would not get to herd immunity, every person that we’re going to get vaccinated is going to be really meaningful.”
Andy Hallman of the Southeast Iowa Union contributed to this report.