As Iowa opens up, COVID-19 vaccination rates continue to slow

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Two volunteers at the University of Iowa mobile clinic set up a COVID-19 vaccination station at the Broadway Neighborhood Center in Iowa City. (Side Effects Public Media)

It’s a hot evening at the Broadway Neighborhood Center in Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa. Student volunteers have set up a mobile COVID vaccination clinic among the apartment complexes that house many immigrant and refugee families. 

But the clinic struggles to attract residents. In recent weeks, demand for the COVID-19 vaccine in Iowa has declined sharply, even though less than 70 percent of Iowans have had at least one dose. 

Andrew Coghill-Behrends, the center’s site director, hits the streets. His goal is to get at least 20 people in for the shot.

“It’s really about talking to people and seeing if you can find them where they’re at, and encourage them to come over, said Coghill-Behrends.

Coghill-Behrends approaches several people outside. But they all turn him down. 

“Do you want to get the vaccine? We have them for free over at the Broadway Neighborhood Center,” he said.

“No thank you.”

“No? Ok,” said Coghill-Behrends.

The university’s mobile clinic has given more than a thousand shots in vulnerable communities since March. But at the end of today’s clinic hours, just five people get vaccinated.

Coghill-Behrends said he’s concerned because he hears a lot of misinformation about the vaccine from this neighborhood.

“They range the gamut from they’re, they’re putting microchips into in you, straight up to they’re just going to, the vaccine is going to kill you,” he said.

Sixty percent of Iowa’s adults are fully vaccinated for COVID-19. This puts the state above the national average. 

But lately, demand for the vaccine has dropped sharply. 

University of Iowa mobile clinic volunteers Hanxi Tang and Sanya Hassan walk around the Broadway neighborhood in Iowa City to find more residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine. (Side Effects Public Media)

In a recent Commonwealth Fund poll of 12,000 Americans, 66 percent reported two or more barriers to getting the shot. They included being too busy or not knowing they were eligible. 

And 37 percent were hesitant about getting the vaccine. Republicans had significantly higher rates of hesitancy than Democrats. 

The unvaccinated listed a number of concerns like the idea that President Joe Biden has distributed unproven vaccines. Or that the shots makes people sick. Or that people have a personal right to opt out.

Lindee Thomas hears that last reason a lot. She heads a local health department in rural southeast Iowa. 

“It’s mainly personal choice, you know, on what they think. I think a lot of this has been, I guess, party driven or government driven. And so I think there’s a lot of mistrust and misinformation,” Thomas said.

In Thomas’ county, Van Buren, just 42 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. It’s one of the lowest rates in the state. 

But Thomas doesn’t feel it’s her place to persuade people to get the shot.

“I think all we can do is educate people. And they have to make that choice,” Thomas said.

State officials launched an ad campaign to push more people to get vaccinated. The ads features clips of people socializing and attending large events. It encourages everyone to “do their part by getting vaccinated.”

Some counties have set up vaccine lotteries. But experts say there’s little research on whether lottery incentives really work.

Elvin Geng is a professor of medicine at Washington University in St. Louis. He says one study found it only works to persuade those who are more open to getting the shot.

“If you are resistant to it, or you think there’s something wrong with it. And they say, ‘Oh, you could win some money,’ it actually makes people think of that entire thing as less attractive,” Geng said.

What does work, Geng said, is getting primary care physicians to encourage their patients to be vaccinated.

“The reason why people trust their doctors is because there’s a relationship, right? You know  this person as a human being, and you know that you’ve seen them in the past, and you expect to see them again in the future,” Geng said.

Meanwhile, counties with low vaccination rates are at a greater risk for COVID outbreaks.

This worries Chris Estle, who heads a county health department in southeastern Iowa. Just 45 percent of adults are fully vaccinated there.

“Honestly, at this point, I don’t know that we’re going to move the needle. People don’t want to hear me say that. They don’t. But that’s the reality of where we’re at,” Estle said.

Estle said the highly contagious Delta variant has been confirmed in the county. She expects to see a spike in cases at some point. She just doesn’t know when.

This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a public radio collaborative covering healthcare. It is based at WFYI in Indianapolis and has partner stations in six Midwestern states, including Iowa Public Radio. Natalie Krebs works out of Iowa Public Radio.