Two weeks after announcing the state was going to launch a website that would be “a centralized registration and referral system” for people trying to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination, Gov. Kim Reynolds said no such site will be created.
The governor described the planned website as “a one-stop shop where Iowans could provide their information and be matched with vaccine providers near them,” during her Feb. 4 news conference. That same day, the Iowa Department of Public Health issued a request for proposals to build the website, but only allowed companies a 25-hour period in which to submit a proposal.
On Feb. 8, IDPH announced it was awarding the contract for the website to Microsoft.
During her news conference last week, Reynolds said the website should be online “in two weeks.”
That changed abruptly on Wednesday.
“After learning more about the breadth of Microsoft’s solution and reviewing the challenges faced by some other states in their rollouts, and speaking with our various vaccine partners, we have made the determination not to move forward with the contract,” Reynolds said.
“It quickly became apparent that integrating the many already-existing registration and scheduling platforms that are used by some of our public health departments, pharmacies as well as other vaccine providers, it would not be possible in a timely manner without significant disruption to their current systems and we did not want to slow down the process — or, excuse me — the progress that we’re making,” the governor continued.
Rather than allowing other companies to submit proposals, and possibly giving companies longer than one day to submit those proposals, Reynolds decided to scrap the idea for a website entirely.
“So, we’re now shifting our focus from building a different system to optimizing the overall registration and scheduling process for Iowans,” she said. “And this will be done in close partnership with, again, our local public healths and our vaccine providers.”
“We know that barriers still remain for Iowans who are currently eligible, and we’re actively determining how we can leverage existing partnerships to provide an easier alternative to online scheduling.”
The RFP for the “one-stop shop” also said the state wanted the vendor to create “a centralized COVID-19 vaccine call center for Iowans to call with questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, assistance with locating a vaccine provider, [and] assistance with registering and scheduling a vaccine appointment.” When IDPH awarded Microsoft the contract for the website on Feb. 8, it said in a statement it would be awarding a contract for the call center to a different vendor, and the name of that vendor would be announced on Feb. 12. When that day came, IDPH released a statement saying it was canceling its plan to select a company to establish a centralized call center.
As the Associated Press reported, “The department’s notice did not elaborate but cited an administrative rule that allows for bidding processes to be cancelled when in the state’s interest.”
At the governor’s news conference on Wednesday, Radio Iowa reporter O. Kay Henderson asked Reynolds if she was “dumping the idea of a statewide call center as well.”
“No, no we’re not,” the governor replied. “So, as we’ve, again, researched what other states are doing, we’re taking a look at 211, the call center that we have, and we’re looking for opportunities, Kay, that we can enhance that.”
IDPH established 211 as a COVID-19 information hotline in the early weeks of the pandemic.
“Part of the issue is that Iowans are already used to utilizing that  call center, and so that’s normally where they would go,” Reynolds said. “And we just want to be careful about layering other options on top of that.”
“But we want to make sure that we have it staffed appropriately, that we’re helping individuals that can’t utilize the technology and go online and look for an appointment. And so, we’re working with the Department of Public Health and other agencies and our office [sic] to really enhance our 211 call center to meet the needs of Iowans.”
Another reporter asked Reynolds if the 211 call center could make vaccination appointments for people.
“Not yet, but we’re looking at what we can do to enhance that,” she said.
Asked what senior citizens currently struggling to make an appointment should do, Reynolds replied, “Call a triple-A would be the first place for them to start. And then we’ll continue to enhance that and build out areas where we can help them.”
“Triple-A” refers to the Area Agencies on Aging (AAA), which help senior citizens locate and receive needed services. There are six AAAs located around the state. In addition to a website, the Iowa agencies have a central phone line for information, 800-532-3213.
During the news conference, Reynolds said the Biden administration informed governors on Tuesday that starting next week, 2.5 million doses of vaccine will be added to the 11 million doses already scheduled for distribution to states. That will increase Iowa’s allotment of vaccine from 49,500 doses to 62,000 doses.
The administration will also be allocating 2 million doses to its Federal Retail Pharmacy Provider Program, which is double the current amount.
The governor noted that Iowa’s vaccination rate has improved considerably since the beginning of the month.
According to the latest figures from the CDC, 12.1 percent of Iowans had received their first dose of vaccine as of Tuesday, and 4 percent had received their second as well.
Since the pandemic began, 330,513 Iowans — about 10.5 percent of the state’s population — have tested positive for COVID-19. A total of 5,306 have died, according to IDPH.