Companies have one day to apply to build state’s vaccine website; Iowa surpasses 5,000 deaths from COVID-19

Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses reporters at her Feb. 4, 2021 news conference. — video still

Fifty-two days after the first COVID-19 vaccines were administered in Iowa on Dec. 14, and four days after eligibility for vaccination expanded to cover approximately 20 percent of the state’s population, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced her administration had taken “the first step” to creating a website to make it easier for people to set an appointment to be vaccinated.

The Iowa Department of Public Health issued a request for proposals (RFP) at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday morning for a company “to provide a vaccine registration and appointment scheduling system as well as a centralized COVID-19 vaccine call center for Iowans to call with questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, assistance with locating a vaccine provider, assistance with registering and scheduling a vaccine appointment.” Or, as the governor called it at her 11 a.m. Thursday news conference, “a one-stop shop.”

“Today, the state is issuing an RFP for solutions to quickly stand up a centralized registration and referral system,” Reynolds said, reading from her prepared remarks. “Ideally, it would create a one-stop shop where Iowans could provide their information and be matched with vaccine providers near them.”

“So, there’s still a lot to be done to make this possible but the first step begins today to identify a partner and we will keep you updated or posted on that progress.”

Responding to a reporter’s question during the news conference’s brief question period, Reynolds said she believes the process of selecting a vendor to provide the site “will be a relatively quick turnaround.” She did not, however, disclose that anyone interested has just over 24 hours to file their proposal.

As journalist Laura Belin pointed out on Twitter, proposals for the project are due by noon on Friday.

This is not the first time the Reynolds administration has used what it calls “an extremely expediated” response period for a pandemic-related RFP. On Nov. 16, after a month of having an insufficient number of contract tracers, IDPH issued an RFP for a company to provide contact tracing services. The application period closed the following day.

Then, as now, IDPH said the truncated process was justified because it was “an emergency procurement.”

At the end of November a $2.3 million dollar contract for two months of contract tracing assistance was awarded to MCI, an Iowa City-based company that provides call center services. As news organizations noted at the time, the company had done work for both the political campaigns of Donald Trump and Kim Reynolds. Its CEO was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in August, and donated $75,000 to various Republican organizations and campaigns in the two years prior to the contract.

According to IDPH, political considerations played no part in the awarding of that contract, and MCI submitted the best proposal of the 14 companies who responded during the brief application period.

Reynolds was asked on Thursday why she had waited until now to begin the process of providing a state website to facilitate vaccinations. The governor replied at length, but her reply didn’t answer the question of why the website project wasn’t launched earlier.

I think part of the problem, Dave, is that we just have such a limited supply [of vaccine]. And what we’ve seen other states experience since they’ve gone ahead and opened up the scheduling process, and then what happens is people really do get their hopes up. And then they’re being canceled, two or three times. And so in order to try to avoid that with the limited supply that we have coming in, we’ve tried to manage that through our local public health, we’ve tried to work with our providers that are partners through this.

Reynolds added, “Next week, we’ll start the Retail Pharmacy Provider portion, which will bring Hy-Vee and CPESN into the mix.” The Federal Retail Pharmacy Provider Program, which the Biden administration announced on Tuesday, is a direct partnership between the federal government and pharmacies to increase access to vaccine for underserved communities. The state will not be involved.

Iowa has the third-lowest rate among states for vaccinations per 100,000 residents, according to CDC data. Reynolds began her news conference by acknowledging “the vaccine process isn’t as fast or as easy as many of us would like it to be.”

“I’m also aware that many Iowans are frustrated by the scheduling process and struggling to make an appointment,” the governor said, before announcing that a centralized website will be created along with a program to aid senior citizens with their vaccinations.

“To assist Iowans age 65 and older, we’re partnering with the Area Agencies on Aging to provide assistance,” Reynolds said. “They’ll be answering questions, assisting with scheduling, coordinating transportation for older Iowans who are homebound and we’re going to provide information on how to access this help later this week.”

The governor said details regarding the program, including how to access it, will be made available on Friday.

Reynolds told reporters that vaccination distribution was proceeding unevenly throughout the state. Some counties are doing well. She praised the speed and efficiency of Polk County’s vaccination program.

“But there are also counties with administration rates much lower than we would anticipate. And so this week my team and the Department of Public Health have been working with counties across the state to identify and understand barriers that may be slowing down the vaccination process and developing plans on how we can start to resolve those issues,” the governor said. “And I expect to see positive results soon.”

Reynolds was asked why Iowa was doing so poorly vaccinating people compared to other states. The governor said uncertainty over vaccine supply was a problem for vaccination providers.

“We reached out to our counties and our providers, we’re going to put some new metrics in place, we’re going to eliminate a lot of the uncertainty that they’ve been dealing with,” Reynolds said. According to the governor, some providers and counties are “hesitant to schedule appointments when they’re not sure they’re going to get their allocation next week, because it’s been, you know, that’s been a variable from the federal administration as well.”

The Trump administration informed Iowa and other states on Dec. 16 that vaccine allocations were being reduced — in Iowa’s case, by 30 percent — but there have been no other reductions in vaccine allotments to states reported since then.

The governor said she expects vaccination rates around the state to increase soon.

“So we’re going to be watching closely, and as I indicated, we’re going to be putting some new metrics in place, so we can really get the throughput where we need it to be,” she said.

An hour before the governor’s news conference began, IDPH reported another 58 COVID-19 deaths, pushing the state’s virus death toll above 5,000. As of 10 a.m. on Thursday, a total of 5,033 Iowans had died from COVID-19. Approximately 23 percent of those deaths have been reported since Jan. 1.

Because of the way the department discloses COVID-19 deaths to the public, the new deaths reported each day happened weeks, or in some cases months, earlier.

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