JOHNSTON — A state advisory council meeting privately to determine the order in which the COVID-19 vaccine will distributed is finalizing its first series of recommendations, which should be published next week, state officials said Wednesday.
The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are being administered to hospital workers and staff and residents at long-term care facilities like nursing homes. Then the council will begin working on its next series of recommendations, as the state determines in what order the vaccine will be made available to essential workers like emergency response personnel, corrections officers, food processing employees, teachers and school staff, and more.
Gov. Kim Reynolds and Kelly Garcia, the interim director of the state public health department, said Wednesday during a press conference at Iowa PBS studios that there is not yet a timeline for when the council will make its recommendations.
The Infectious Disease Advisory Council will advise the state public health department and governor’s office how to prioritize distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as it becomes available, since early supplies will be limited. The 25-member panel comprises medical, infectious disease, and public health experts and officials, and has also been reaching out to employers, stakeholders and advocates for their input, Garcia said.
Garcia said the council has met twice, and plans to meet again next week.
“I am tremendously thankful to our (council) members, who are taking these conversations head on, speaking freely, and bringing their expertise to the decision-making process. Because these decisions cannot be made lightly or easily,” Garcia said. “I’m confident that we have the right people at the table for this challenging effort.”
Garcia said those tough decisions — about which workers should be given access to the vaccine before others — are why the council has been meeting in private, away from reporters.
Garcia said she has attempted to strike a balance between creating a process where council members feel safe to speak freely on sensitive topics while also being transparent with the public. She noted the council has produced minutes, a brief synopsis of each meeting, and the minutes will be made public.
“These are difficult, challenging (conversations). … I really do need there to be a free-flowing dialogue,” Garcia said. “I want the clinicians and the other experts in that room to be able to ask questions of each other without additional criticism of what those questions might be. It will provide the healthiest of recommendations.”
The public health department said it has determined the vaccine advisory council is not subject to the state’s open meetings and records laws because it was formed to advise a state agency, not the governor or state lawmakers.
Garcia also said the public health department is confident the panel’s private meetings do not violate the state’s open meetings and records laws, which require government entities to hold most meetings in public view, with some exceptions.
The state Public Information Board, created to oversee compliance with state open meetings and records laws, on its website says, “Advisory groups and the application of the open meetings/records statutes are a murky area of the law.”
Margaret Johnson, the Public Information Board’s executive director, said she would need more information about how the vaccine advisory council was formed, who formed it, and what responsibilities were assigned to the council, before she could determine whether it should be exempt from open meetings and records laws.
Regardless of whether those laws apply to the vaccine advisory council, the group should hold its meetings in public so the public can feel confident in its work, said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a coalition of Iowa media outlets that advocates for transparent governance.
“The Freedom of Information Council believes there is no more important function in government right now than how government is going to distribute the vaccine across the state. And with the recommendations of the experts being kept from the public, I don’t know that that’s going to be a strategy that’s going to build public confidence in the decisions that are made. I think on the contrary: I think it’s going to invite people to be skeptical and to distrust the decisions that are made,” Evans said.