Gov. Reynolds doesn’t answer question about political divide on vaccines, announces college vaccination programs

Video still of Gov. Kim Reynolds during her March 31, 2021 news conference.

As Iowa prepares to for its largest expansion of eligibility for COVID-19 vaccination — everyone 16 and older for the Pfizer vaccine, and those 18 and older for both Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — Gov. Kim Reynolds was asked at her weekly news conference if she any insight into why many people in a recent Iowa Poll said they have no intention of being vaccinated against the virus.

Although the poll conducted by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom found that 67 percent of respondents had either already received at least one dose of vaccine or planned to be vaccinated, it also showed 41 percent of self-identified Republicans said they won’t be vaccinated. Among people who said they voted for Donald Trump in 2020, the number increased to 47 percent. Those results reflect trends in recent national polls, which have show Republican men are the group most likely to refuse to be vaccinated.

Responding to the reporter’s question at her Wednesday news conference, Reynolds, an ardent Trump supporter, chose not to address why some people don’t want to be vaccinated.

“Well, I’m visiting clinics,” she said. “So, I can tell you the response that I see from Iowans that are there getting the vaccine is there is a pep in their step, they are so grateful to have it, they are excited to reconnect with family members. They really believe that this is an opportunity to get things back to normal.”

Reynolds did stress the importance of everyone being vaccinated as soon as possible, taking advantage of whatever COVID-19 vaccine is offered, and said she felt other leaders could play an important role in persuading people to get their immunizations.

“It is about, I think, the community leaders, people they feel comfortable with, really talking to them — more so than me, I think, you know,” the governor said. “But we’re going to continue to advocate, continue to get materials out there and get them the education to help move to get it.”

A community leader Reynolds may not be able to count on to convince people to get vaccinated is her fellow Republican, Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Grassley, who is one of the state’s most powerful politicians and, like his grandfather, Sen. Chuck Grassley, a strong supporter of Trump.

During the March 26 episode of Iowa Press, Grassley was asked if he has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. — official photo

“I’ve chosen not to at this point,” he replied.

Grassley didn’t explain his choice not to be vaccinated, but pressed on whether he will get vaccinated, he said if his unvaccinated status begins to impinge on his lifestyle, he probably will.

“At some point, I’ll probably,” Grassley said. “Assuming it’ll get to the point where we’ll all be required to do it if we want to do any sort of traveling.”

Host David Yepsen asked Grassley about the partisan divide on vaccinations and pointed out “some Republican leaders are worried that they’re coming off as being so anti-vaccine that it could hurt the effort.”

“My personal choice as far as what I do has nothing to do with a political stance or anything like that, so I think anyone that is eligible when the eligibility comes should be in line to do that,” Grassley said. “I just have chosen not to.”

Grassley has followed Reynolds’ lead in making individual choice the central focus of COVID-19 mitigation efforts. Along with Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, Grassley rejected pleas from Democrats, the Iowa Public Health Association and others, and refused to require lawmakers, staff or visitors to the Iowa State Capitol to wear face masks.

Hand sanitizer stations like this one are scattered throughout the State Capitol Building in Des Moines. There are no face covering or other COVID-19 mitigation requirements in the building, although visitors have their temperature checked via a wrist thermometer by security officers near the public entrance, as of March 2021. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

At least eight people associated with the legislature have tested positive for COVID-19 since January. The rules for session established by Grassley and Whitver do not require anyone to report positive tests or close contact with someone who has tested positive, so it’s not clear if those eight are the only cases.

Rep. Amy Nielsen, a Democrat from North Liberty, tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 30. Nielsen, who is still experiencing some COVID symptoms, believes she contracted the virus at the Capitol Building.

Iowa has seen a sharp increase in both new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations over the past two weeks, after experiencing declines in both.

Speaking at the governor’s news conference on Wednesday, Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services as well as the interim director of the Iowa Department of Public Health –despite the pandemic, IDPH has not had a full-time director since July 31 — addressed the increase in virus activity.

“A part of the increase in positive cases that we’re seeing has to do with spring break travel, and an increasing number of variants that are circulating in Iowa and across the nation,” Garcia said. “And they are more contagious.”

Like Reynolds, Garcia encouraged everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible, using whatever vaccine is being offered.

In her role as DHS director, Garcia is responsible for the state’s six long-term care facilities. DHS is not requiring employees in those facilities to be vaccinated. Iowa Capital Dispatch reported last month that almost 40 percent of those employees have declined the opportunity to be vaccinated.

The refusal rate ranged from 30 percent of the 515 employees at the Woodward Resource Center, which serves the needs of children and adults “with intellectual disabilities and other related disabilities,” to 49 percent of the employees at the Glenwood Resource Center, which serves people with severe intellectual disabilities.

Jane Hudson, executive director of Disability Rights Iowa, told the Dispatch she was “shocked” the state didn’t require vaccinations for those caring for the residents of its long-term care facilities.

“I know the state is trying to educate people and it’s increasing, it’s getting better, but to have direct care workers in congregate facilities who aren’t getting vaccinated puts people at risk,” she said.

Reynolds was asked at the news conference if she would require the employees at the six facilities to be vaccinated. She won’t.

The governor did announce a new vaccination effort aimed at the state’s college students. The Biden administration is increasing the amount of vaccine being delegated to the states, particularly the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The state has so far been directing its supply of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to employer-run vaccination programs for some workers who have been designated essential.

“And we project that the vaccination of essential worker in food processing, ag production as well as manufacturing and distribution companies will hopefully be completed by the end of next week,” Reynolds said on Wednesday. As those vaccination programs end, the one-shot vaccine will be directed to colleges and universities, both public and private, “to support the vaccination of college students and the staff before they leave for the summer.”

“This will protect their families upon their return home and it will ensure they have been vaccinated before they come back to school for the fall semester,” the governor said.

Starting next week, the state will provide the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at two private and two public colleges: Dordt University in Sioux Center and Northwestern College in Orange City, both of which are Christian schools, and the University of Iowa and Des Moines Area Community College.

As vaccine supplies increase, more colleges around the state will receive the one-shot vaccine, the governor said.

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