Dubuque County health officials are considering using federal COVID-19 relief dollars to encourage more people to get vaccinated against the disease, even as they look to potentially close their main vaccination site.

Of the nearly $19 million Dubuque County is set to receive from the American Rescue Plan, more than $8 million is already in the coffers. Recent updates from the U.S. Department of the Treasury have inspired the county Board of Supervisors and members of the Dubuque County COVID-19 Incident Management Team to explore directing some of that money to vaccine-hesitant residents.

“We now know with some more clarity in the latest Treasury guidance that incentives for vaccinations can be included to continue to try and get more and more people vaccinated,” Supervisor Ann McDonough said at a meeting this week. “I’d ask for some creativity in pursuing all of our citizens to consider being vaccinated.”

County Health Department Executive Director Patrice Lambert was quick to agree with the idea.

“I can see where that would be very beneficial,” she said. “That could be something we could consider even for the boosters since we don’t know if the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) will be recommending boosters in the future for COVID.”

Lambert said the only reason that members of the incident management team had not put together such a proposal was because they thought they would have to ask the federal government for approval. Since that is not the case, the team will develop and present a plan to the county supervisors soon.

However, she also said the Iowa Department of Public Health has not recommended the practice of providing incentives in recent discussions with county health departments.

McDonough said that should not stop Dubuque County.

“Our governor has said she is not going to (support incentives), so I’m not surprised that IDPH is not going to pursue that,” she said. “We know our citizens better than the governor. I don’t want that to chill us from doing what we need to get the job done.”

Lambert also told supervisors that the incident management team intends to let the county’s lease of the former Younkers women’s store at Kennedy Mall expire at the end of the month, though the decision has not been finalized. The site has served as the county’s COVID-19 vaccine point of distribution since early February.

However, the health care providers who have staffed the site so far have been packing up to go home, Lambert said. The only provider who will be working at the site after this week is the Visiting Nurse Association, which is contracted by the county.

“All of our vaccine providers are going to be pulling out completely from the (site) and working within their own agencies, basically because of the staffing issues that they have in their offices,” she said. “And our lease does end at the end of June.”

The current lease also includes avenues for extension, however.

Lambert said the current plan was for a sign to be erected at the Younkers site informing any people who come after June 25 of the closure of the site and directing them to nearby pharmacies. The VNA also could operate a site modeled after the Younkers location out of its offices in Dubuque.

The site has seen a reduction in walk-ins and appointments in recent weeks, but there have been outliers. Last Friday, for instance, 191 people received shots at the site — half of whom were walk-ins.

County Supervisor Jay Wickham said he was concerned about closing the site.

“If you’re putting up a big sign to direct people other places and you think that’s effective, you might as well just give the vaccine to the people reading the sign at that location,” he said. “The other private providers have the choice to serve the public however they want to. But the VNA, who are funded by Dubuque County and the Board of Health, should get direction from the Board of Health and the Board of Supervisors.”

Wickham asked Lambert to return with data showing the trend of vaccinations being administered at the site before any decision is finalized.

County Emergency Management Director Tom Berger said one other reason to potentially let the lease expire is problems providers are facing with air conditioning at the site.

“Of the units that they have, there are only two working,” he said. “So even though the thermostat is set on 68, it only gets down to 72 or 73 in there. I don’t think we want to replace an air conditioner, but it’s rather warm in there for the people who are working there.”

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