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As COVID-19 case counts plummet, some residents are still wary of a vaccine

Residents have been taking advantage of recent warm weather to enjoy the outdoors, especially at Central Park. Photo by Kaya Matsuura.

COVID-19 cases in Poweshiek County have dropped from a weekly average of 27.9 cases per day between November and January to an average of just one case per day as of late April. Despite the drop in cases being largely the result of residents getting vaccinated against the virus, vaccination rates across Poweshiek County have stagnated in recent weeks, due to some residents’ hesitancy to get the vaccine.

Poweshiek County was one of 80 Iowa counties that declined some or all of their COVID-19 vaccine allocation for the week of May 3, after reduced demand from County residents. Yet only 30.2 percent of Poweshiek County residents are fully vaccinated. Even fewer, 12.5 percent, have received their first – but not second – vaccine dose.

These numbers do not include residents who received their second dose at Grinnell College’s April 29 vaccine clinic. This clinic was held for individuals who received their first Pfizer dose at the College’s first vaccination clinic three weeks prior, which distributed over 800 doses to students, faculty and staff from the College, as well as to residents in-and-around the town of Grinnell.

Grinnell City Manager Russ Behrens said that some residents of Grinnell have been waiting to schedule their vaccine appointments because they wanted at-risk groups to receive their doses first. He said he hopes that these residents will get vaccinated sooner rather than later, since there are now more vaccine doses available than people in-line for them.

Behrens admitted that some vaccine hesitancy in Poweshiek County is based on politics.

“Some people believe that COVID is a hoax. That segment of the community, we’re probably not going to be able to reach them.”

But the level of vaccine hesitancy caused by politics may be overstated, at least among those employed by the city.

“Our employee base is pretty representative of the community . . . and we had very little hesitancy to take the vaccine,” said Behrens. “By next week, we’ll have well-over 90 percent of our full-time employees vaccinated.”

The city did not mandate that these employees be vaccinated. Poweshiek County Public Health (PCPH) automatically registered any city employee who requested a vaccine appointment, rather than require employees sign up through PCPH’s phone system, which received criticism for being difficult for residents to navigate.

Behrens said that he hopes that other employers will be able to work with PCPH to provide vaccines for their employees similar to how the city of Grinnell did, since he said that may push more residents to become vaccinated if they don’t need to schedule it themselves.

“I think it’s just, sometimes people don’t take the time to do it,” said Behrens.

PCPH has held five vaccine clinics since April 5, the date when vaccine eligibility expanded to all permanent and temporary Iowa residents ages 18 and older. The first three of those vaccination clinics were appointment-only, and slots quickly filled up. On April 14, PCPH held an additional drive-through vaccine clinic, open to the public without appointments.

The first indicator that demand for vaccines had fallen was when PCPH switched its April 20 vaccine clinic at the Michael J. Manatt Community Center in Brooklyn, IA, from an appointment-only clinic to allow walk-ins after many appointment slots did not fill up soon enough.

Despite this, Iowa is one of the top states for its success in distributing its allotted vaccine doses. 86 percent of vaccines provided to Iowa vaccine distributors have been successfully administered – the eighth highest percentage in the United States – compared to the national average of 79 percent.

And this effort has paid off for Poweshiek County’s most vulnerable population: 73 percent of the County’s residents ages 65 and older are fully vaccinated. When adjusted for population, Poweshiek County has a seven-day average of 3.9 cases per 100,000 people. The last reported death in Poweshiek County due to COVID-19 occurred on April 4, 2021. Other counties in the I-80 corridor are faring far worse.

Polk County, home to Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines, has a seven-day moving average of 15.4 cases per 100,000 people. Iowa County, which borders Poweshiek County to the east, has an average of 8.8 cases. Iowa’s overall seven-day average is 371 cases per day.

Behrens said that Grinnell has been fortunate not to be faced with these rising case counts elsewhere in the I-80 corridor, and that this decline in COVID-19 cases puts Grinnell in a good position to begin reopening buildings and services which had been put on hold during the pandemic.

“We’re in a really good position right now to start making certain things available that haven’t been available for the last year,” said Behrens. “The vaccines are a big part of that. The more people that get the vaccine, the more we’re gonna be able to do.”

Behrens cited the Drake Community Library’s plans to fully reopen on May 3, and also said that the city government is currently planning to re-open the Grinnell Mutual Family Aquatic Center for the summer.

Behrens said that he does not expect any services conducted by the city of Grinnell to require vaccination to participate. However, he added that the city of Grinnell would consider partnering with PCPH for a vaccination campaign – similar to Grinnell’s Mask Up campaign – if vaccination rates in and around Grinnell continue to stagnate.

“I think the portion of the community that we can reach is the people who on a day to day business are between their jobs where maybe they can’t just get out of work to go get a shot, or because of not finding daycare. There’s people that are just that busy during the day . . . I think those are the people we can help.”

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Nina Baker
Nina Baker, Staff Writer
Nina Baker is a fourth-year Russian major with a Russian, Central European and Eurasian Studies concentration from Lakeville, Minnesota. When she's not reporting for The Scarlet & Black, she loves taking long walks, reading, and learning foreign languages.
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