Dubuque County public health officials said Thursday that, despite rumors and COVID-19 vaccines now being available to all adults in Iowa, they have not declared an earlier phase of the vaccination effort completed. Thus, the county mask mandate remains in effect.
County officials did say, however, that the fate of the mandate likely will be reviewed in the next couple of weeks.
The county’s resolution requires all people older than 2 to wear face coverings while inside public spaces, including businesses — which are required to offer masks for those without — or while outside in public when social distancing is impossible. Exceptions were included for those who could not wear the coverings for medical reasons.
The mandate was put into place in November and extended in February. At that time, the resolution stated that it would be in effect until June 15 or until the county COVID-19 Incident Management Team “declares that Phase 1B is completed in Dubuque County,” whichever happened sooner.
Phase 1B referred to individuals prioritized by the Iowa Department of Public Health to qualify for the COVID-19 vaccines either due to their age, health conditions or occupations, including those 65 years and older, people 16 to 64 with high-risk conditions, first responders, teachers, health care professionals, front-line essential workers in manufacturing and food and agricultural production.
County Health Department Director Patrice Lambert announced in two public meetings this week that some of the last of that essential workforce to be identified will begin vaccinating next week.
“We should have that group have at least their prime dose by the end of next week,” Lambert told the Telegraph Herald on Thursday.
But she said that should not be construed as the team declaring the group finished next week.
“If we look at an essential business coming in at the end of next week getting their prime dose, it would still be three weeks or four weeks until their second dose,” Lambert said. “Then, it would be two more weeks until they are considered fully vaccinated.”
That means those individuals would have full protection as of mid- to late May.
Local vaccination distribution also is being influenced by decisions made on the state level.
Gov. Kim Reynolds declared that all Iowans qualified for vaccines as of Monday. And while local health officials are targeting the remainder of the 1B category with their limited dose allotment, members of the general population also are getting appointments from their providers and area pharmacies.
“We can’t hold on to vaccines waiting for these (1B) people to step forward or be available,” Lambert said. “We have to also move forward with the governor’s opening up. But by no means are we saying we are done with Phase 1B Tiers 1-5. But I could see how (residents) could misinterpret that.”
On Thursday, elected officials, health officials and the TH all began receiving calls and emails insisting that since the county had an eye on the last batch of identified workers, the county’s mask mandate would soon end.
“Folks are expecting us to be transparent about this,” said Supervisor Ann McDonough, who received many messages Thursday. “It’s a natural question. We’re turning the calendar to April. We told people we would be looking at this in April.”
Supervisor Harley Pothoff also received calls and emails. He acknowledged that misunderstandings were beginning to spread, but that the mandate was still in effect.
Sageville Mayor Wayne Kenniker received some of the same communications. He had been a visible member of a group of mayors who opposed the mandate and its extension.
“Some people were under the impression that Phase 1B was done because they were told earlier that Phase 2 wouldn’t start until it was,” he said. “I recognized the potential for that confusion back when they were trying to establish the language in the resolution. From the start, they didn’t have the metric that allowed them to say, ‘Here’s how many people are in Phase 1B. Here’s how many who want the vaccination. Here’s who will not get the vaccination.’”
Lambert said on Thursday that the incident management team had no way to know what percentage of the 1B category had been vaccinated.
For one, the team distributes doses to providers who then administer them. Moreover, some essential businesses and other individuals were receiving vaccines through private pharmacies. She did say that 85% of residents 65 and older had received at least one dose of vaccine.
She also said that members of the 1B groups still are coming forward — because they had a conflict when they were first called or they had changed their mind about getting it, for instance.
For some of these reasons, Lambert said she doubted the incident management team would ever feel comfortable declaring 1B complete.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be able to say we’re completely done with 1B,” she said.
But, as the mask resolution is currently written, that is the only way for the mandate to end before June 15.
“When we wrote the ordinance, the concept of ‘completion’ was not what people were focused on,” McDonough said. “We thought that we would get to the end of 1B, and we would have an appropriate level of vaccination. We haven’t. We thought we would have enough vaccine.”
Another caveat in the resolution was that the mandate could be “modified or superseded” at any time.
And internally, the county Board of Health agreed at the time of the proposal to review the mandate in April.
“My intent is that topic be front and center on the agenda for April 21, which gets us right into that eight weeks ahead of June 15,” said Board of Health Chairman Tom Bechen at Wednesday’s meeting.