OTTUMWA — Starting next month, Wapello County will begin outreach for COVID-19 vaccinations in rural areas of the county while also seeing the end of a popular service.

Wapello County Public Health Clinical Director Lynelle Diers and Emergency Management Coordinator Tim Richmond held a virtual press conference Friday to disclose the new initiative geared toward vaccinating those 65 and older in hard-to-reach areas.

The rural clinic program will begin in March, and city clerks in the rural communities and townships will be taking phone calls between Tuesday and Feb. 26 to register for the clinic. This does not include residents within the city of Ottumwa.

Also, 10-15 Transit will be taking senior citizens to their vaccination appointments if there are transportation issues.

"It'll tell us what our needs and quantities are, and then we'll be able to set up those outreach clinics in those cities," Richmond said. "We understand there is a technology gap with seniors, especially if the internet isn't the best where they live. It gives them a place they can call into."

"It gives public health a chance to plan ahead, so we know how many doses we need at each township," Diers said. "And also taking into consideration that we need to have groups of 10, because once we put a needle into a vial, we have six hours to use all 10 doses."

The county will also close the Test Iowa clinic site in Ottumwa Feb. 25. Operational since mid-October, the clinic has seen a downward trend in registrations for testing over the last several weeks. The clinic recently was scaled back to Monday through Thursday from 4-6 p.m.

With the closing of the clinic, the two contracted nurses for the site will then devote their time to vaccinations.

"We feel that will give us the best results to help get us back to normalcy," Richmond said. "But we have to play it by ear, because it was similar to what we had in the summer. We don't know what we don't know, but right now we feel like our best use of time is to get vaccines in arms."

"Right now, the clinics do have the capacity to pick up the testing. None of our clinics are being overwhelmed like they were in the fall," Diers said. "That's what drove us to open up the Test Iowa site."

Neither Diers nor Richmond agreed with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds' removal of a mask mandate, or the governor's statement regarding contracting with Microsoft to create a centralized registration system that is still a few weeks away.

"We're continuing to see positive virus cases, and we're now seeing it in teenagers," Diers said. "It's getting into our younger population now. So now is not the time to relax everything with the variants hitting our state."

"I don't think the centralized system will help it all. I think it will make it more complicated," Richmond said. "We're already well down the path locally to come up with options and although they're not perfect, to throw in another type of process ... Sometimes, it's too little, too late, and we're not going to sit and wait.

"We're being as aggressive as we can so we pick away at those 6,000 people over 65 and move on to the next group," he said. "The faster we move through these points in our plan, the faster we move to the next group."

Diers said the county continues to receive 500 doses of vaccine per week and juggles the vaccinations of those 65 and older as well as frontline workers. Vaccination of educators began last week and is ongoing. She said there will be "an extremely large" clinic coming up in the manufacturing group.

Earlier this week, the county added Walmart and South Side Drug Store among its clinic partners. Diers said patience is still required as demand is far exceeding supply. She said Ottumwa Primary Clinic will vaccinate residents who aren't their patients, but a waiting list is long.

"We're only getting 500 again next, but we have to hold back two-thirds of that because we have a large clinic for educators coming up," she said. "I'm very happy about getting into pharmacies because I'm trying to create access points for individuals."

At the same time, Diers and Richmond understand the frustrations of those who are eligible and have struggled to get the vaccine.

"I can appreciate the fear people have, especially the elderly and immunocompromised," Richmond said. "We're working very diligently to get to them as quickly as possible. We've made a conscious effort to address those, while at the same time taking care of our essential services personnel, because we need those people to take care of us.

"The phases were created by Iowa Department of Public Health," he said. "It's just a function of a shortage of vaccine nationwide. Iowa's a rural state, so we fall toward the bottom of allocation. That state is trying to figure out how to keep it moving so it's not sitting somewhere. It's a moving target and it's not perfect, but we're doing the best we can."

— Chad Drury can be reached at cdrury@ottumwacourier.com, and on Twitter @ChadDrury

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